Just weeks before the start of school, APS sent letters to parents notifying them that the school system would begin enforcing rules, already in place, that reserve bus transportation for students a mile or more away from their elementary school and 1.5 miles or more away from their middle or high school. Students outside the so-called “walk zones” have been issued passes that allow them to board a bus at a specific bus stop; those inside the walk zones must walk, bike or otherwise find their own transportation to school.
The goal was to increase the efficiency, on-time performance and safety of the bus system by knowing which students will board the bus at which time and place. The changes also made it possible for Arlington to absorb nearly 1,000 new students this year without having to buy additional buses or hire additional drivers.
But hundreds of parents have protested against the changes by signing an online petition or joining a Facebook group called “Arlington Parents for Safe Transportation.” Many of those parents say their children were previously eligible for bus transportation, but were not issued passes this year. They argue that forcing their children to walk to school — sometimes over busy roads — risks their safety.
In his letter, Dr. Murphy said the changes actually improve student safety.
“The primary focus of this transition has been to ensure the safety of our students,” he said. “This means we need to know who is on the bus, and to ensure that our buses are not overcrowded, especially in the face of our growing enrollment needs. We also need to focus on improving on-time service to and from schools. This new system will also ensure that we avoid having too many or too few students assigned to a bus.”
Dr. Murphy struck an apologetic tone when responding to complaints that the changes were made too close to the new school year, which starts on Tuesday, Sept. 4.
“I regret the confusion some families have experienced and want to assure you that we are working to address and respond quickly to the many questions and concerns that have been raised,” Dr. Murphy wrote. “I recognize that notifying you recently of specific changes for your child’s eligibility for the bus service has been disruptive to some families.”
Approximately 14,000 students are eligible for bus transportation this year, while about 9,000 are within their school’s walk zone, according to APS. The letter revealed that a recalculation of distances to schools has prompted APS to eliminate 12 bus stops, affecting about 250 students. (There are 1,783 bus stops across the county.)
Dr. Murphy said some mistakes were made, resulting in bus passes not being issued to some students outside the walk zones. Those mistakes are being corrected, he said, via an ongoing appeals process.
“As many of you are aware, we have found a few errors in our route planning,” Dr. Murphy wrote. “I want to assure you that we are working to correct any errors through the appeals process as quickly as possible. Families affected by these changes are also being notified.”
But not all of the appeals the school system has been receiving are from parents and students in the walk zones.
“It has become apparent that some families were not aware that their student lived within the ‘walk zone’ and were actually ‘walking back’ to get on a bus,” Dr. Murphy said. “We estimate that approximately 1,000-1,500 students ‘walked back’ to get on a bus, resulting in overcrowded buses with students sometimes standing in the aisles. We have received approximately 100 appeals as of today. While some appeals are focused on bus stops that were moved or eliminated, the majority of appeals are due to the elimination of ‘walk backs.’”
“With our growing enrollment, this practice has caused continued overcrowding on many buses,” Dr. Murphy continued. “More importantly, this meant that we did not have an accurate list of the students riding buses, which has been a serious safety concern. Consequently, we can no longer accommodate “walk back” students on our buses.”
“It appears that it’s impacting a lot of people, but the reality is that out of 1,700 bus stops, it really is only eliminating about a dozen bus stops,” he said. “There’s still more people that are impacted by the adherence to the policy that you are not allowed any longer to walk back [to bus stops].”
Matthews said that APS will continue to pick up students from bus stops regardless of whether they have a pass.
“We’re not going to leave children at a bus stop,” he said. “Although, we do expect only eligible riders to ride buses.”