When the Howard County Board of Education voted in February to push high school start times from 7:25 a.m. to 8 a.m., Centennial High School freshman Angela Huang was excited by the opportunity for much-needed extra sleep. That enthusiasm evaporated when Huang learned weeks later that she was one of the approximately 3,500 county students who will lose bus service next school year due to a revised transportation policy.
“It’s really inconvenient,” said Huang, 14, who plans to walk the 1.8 miles to Centennial carrying her violin and volleyball gear. “I have to [wake up] 30 minutes early because it’s an hour walk.”
The expanded student walk zones, or “non-transportation areas,” were approved unanimously by the school board in May 2022 as part of an overhaul of the school system’s transportation system aimed at facilitating new start times.
Next school year, the zones will shift from a half-mile to 1 mile for prekindergarten, from 1 mile to 1½ miles for middle school, and from 1½ miles to 2 miles for high school students. Although the walk distance for elementary school remains at 1 mile, the distance was changed to be measured from a home’s property line to the school’s property line, instead of the school door. As a result, 23 of 42 elementary schools will have new walk areas.
To better allocate available transportation resources, the new policy also required eligible families to register for all future bus service. Online registration opened Tuesday and is available through June 1.
On Wednesday, more than a dozen HCPSS parents and students gathered in front of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City ahead of a joint County Council-school board meeting to protest the loss of service and longer walks for students.
“School bus cancellations are not good for safety, school bus cancellations are not good for equity, school bus cancellations are not good for the Earth,” said Ellicott City resident Corinne Happel, who attended the rally. She is the parent of three elementary schoolers who are losing bus service.
Happel, who also has an infant and a 3-year-old, has yet to figure out how she’ll get her kids to school. She says her two youngest children will also be affected by the new walk areas no matter what option they settle on.
“It’s two kids who would either be stuck in the car with me in a drop off and pick up line that could easily take the better part of an hour, twice a day,” she said. “Or they would be walking 5 miles a day [round-trip].”
School system spokesperson Brain Bassett said in an email Tuesday that about 1,350 elementary schoolers, 800 middle schoolers and 1,200 high schoolers will lose bus service as a result of the new zones. But even students who keep their service may be affected by the policy changes, which also increased the maximum distance between a student’s residence and their bus stop.
Whereas students previously only had to walk up to a half-mile to bus stops, stops can now be placed up to 1 mile away from home for elementary schoolers, 1½ miles for middle schoolers and 2 miles for high schoolers. Updated bus stop locations and times for next school year will be available in August, according to the school system.
At Wednesday’s council meeting, lawmakers voiced concerns about how the policy could increase traffic and lead to disparate impacts on students.
“Particularly for the high school students ... this is a matter of equity,” said council member Deb Jung, a Democrat representing District 4. “Even with the change in school start times, they’re going to have to walk an extra half mile and it means that they won’t get any extra sleep. That’s not fair.”
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Walk route safety is another major concern for families that can’t afford private transportation or carpool. Happel says her kids have no sidewalks for the majority of their walk to school and Huang said many classmates in her neighborhood are worried about their walk along Centennial Lane, given its narrow sidewalk and heavy traffic.
“A lot of families depend on these buses for our children to go to school,” said Huang, whose three younger siblings also lost bus service for their elementary and middle schools. “Now they just have to trust that their child can safely walk to school without getting hurt.”
Director of Student Transportation Brian Nevin said all new walk zones were assessed for safety and that families can still reach out to the Office of Student Transportation to request a reevaluation.
“There is a process right now where we’re reviewing all of those walking routes and making adjustments as necessary,” Superintendent Michael Martirano said.
School officials also emphasized that the transportation adjustments would not affect students with individualized education plans — sets of customized goals required by law to support students with learning disabilities — or Section 504 disability support plans.
Along with new start times, chronic bus driver shortages necessitated a more efficient transportation model, according to Nevin, who said the school system had 92 driver vacancies as of Wednesday. But Happel and other affected parents still hope the board can come up with alternative solutions to scrapping bus service.
“We have had near misses already just getting to our bus stop,” she said. “So, the idea of taking children even further on roads that are not designed well for pedestrian visibility is a big concern.”