Transportation, crowd issues crop up in FCPS students’ return

McNair Elementary School students pick up lunch on the first day of the 2021-2022 school year (via FCPS)

The first day of school is always a nerve-wracking affair, but the stakes felt especially high on Monday (Aug. 23), when Fairfax County Public Schools brought back roughly 180,000 students after more than a year of mostly virtual instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the return to school unfolded relatively smoothly, students, staff, and parents raised a multitude of concerns as well, primarily around transportation and the lack of distancing and masks in cafeterias, Fairfax County School Board members said during a work session on Tuesday (Aug. 24).

The transportation challenges were largely expected, as FCPS advised families last week that a school bus driver shortage would lead to delays. In a presentation to the board, Superintendent Scott Brabrand reported that the district had filled 86.4% of its 1,121 bus driver positions as of Monday, leaving 152 vacancies.

Still, the advance warning didn’t make the delays less frustrating for students and their parents.

“[Parents] want to know how long is it going to take for their children to come in, and [there were] also lots of concerns with students who were left outside to wait for their buses, and they don’t know how long,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said. “Is it 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 45? When we have the heat we had yesterday and rain that’s going to come, because let’s be clear, this transportation issue is not going to be resolved any time soon.”

According to an FCPS spokesperson, the Langley area has been hit hardest by the shortage, though the school system was unable to provide data on exactly how many students have been affected by bus delays.

Noting that the school system has 20 “double-back” routes this year, compared to just eight last year, FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Facilities and Transportation Services Jeff Platenberg told the board that delays were reduced by 40% from Monday morning to Tuesday.

Even on Tuesday morning, however, late runs to Langley High School, Spring Hill Elementary, and Longfellow Middle School were all an hour off of their schedules.

“We know everybody is anxious about it, including us,” Platenberg said. “We’re excited about this start for the school year. We have some extreme challenges with this bus driver shortage, but we are working with our communities.”

He added that kiss-and-ride lines at schools were “jammed” on Monday and Tuesday, calling it “a healthy problem to have” since the crowds indicated that parents were heeding FCPS’ advice to drive or walk their children to school if possible.

One parent who asked to not be identified described the kiss-and-ride experience at her son’s elementary school as “absolute pandemonium,” with supervising staff seemingly scrambling to figure out where students were supposed to go.

In one case, a 4-year-old girl ended up on a shuttle to an after-school program that she doesn’t attend, leading her parents to post on social media that she was missing.

“I’m not trying to disparage the teachers who are clearly out there doing the best that they can, but from a system standpoint,” the parent said on Tuesday. “Yesterday and today were very, very hot days to just sit there for 30 minutes with no shade. What if it’s a pouring rainy day? What is your system? There has to be a better way to think through this.”

An FCPS spokesperson says the issues that have been reported are fairly routine for the beginning of a new school year.

“We are only on day three of the school year, and we would ask all families to give us a little grace as our schools get back into the flow of things,” FCPS said. “We are not seeing anything that is untypical for this time of year.”

The parent told Reston Now yesterday (Wednesday) that the kiss-and-ride process had improved that afternoon with better traffic flow and more reasonable wait times.

On Tuesday, school board members also raised concerns about crowding in cafeterias, where students have to take their masks off to eat and, in many cases, have little to no space for social distancing.

Students are required to wear masks except when actively eating or drinking, and FCPS has ramped up efforts to establish outdoor spaces for classrooms and meals after introducing the concept with a pilot program last year.

However, the availability of outdoor tables and tents, and a shortage of staff to monitor cafeterias have posed problems. Karen Corbett Sanders, who represents Mount Vernon District, said she saw photos of high school students eating in an auditorium, because they had no facilities outside due to an ongoing renovation.

“I’d like to have our schools under renovation prioritized on the outdoor learning spaces and cafeterias, because we have to address these issues or we are going to face outbreaks on a more frequent basis,” Corbett Sanders said.

According to Platenberg, FCPS has received about 100 outdoor tents so far, including one that was lost to vandalism and another to recent storms.

The district has requested 197 tents for 185 different facilities, and staff are erecting approximately 20 tents per week, though some deliveries have been held up by supply chain issues.

“We have identified some hot spots where we need to look at additional measures, and we’re now going back and looking at all of our schools,” Deputy Superintendent Dr. Frances Ivey said. “But I just want to be clear, these processes and communications and working with principals…did start long before this week.”

Photo via FCPS

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