Katee Bolt is changing her son’s school when the second semester begins Jan. 4.
It wasn’t the east Pasco family’s preference. But the Pasco County school district’s decision to shift start times for every campus left them few good options.
A Pasco Elementary teacher, Bolt said her job’s new earlier start time made it all but impossible for her to safely get her son to Centennial Middle, which also will begin at 8:10 a.m. They decided to drop school choice and send him to neighborhood school Stewart Middle in Zephyrhills instead, so he can catch a bus near home rather than rely on a car ride.
Because Stewart will start at 9:10 a.m., Bolt also will be able to pick her son up after classes more easily. She said he’s “on board” with the switch, but added, “It’s frustrating that it’s happening in the middle of the school year. Hopefully it fixes some things.”
The goal is to fix the district’s student transportation situation. Persistent bus driver shortages, worsened by pandemic concerns, meant that hundreds of students routinely arrive at school as much as an hour late during the first semester.
Some students were left sitting by the side of the road waiting for their buses after their classes were set to begin.
“We can’t keep doing what we’re doing,” assistant superintendent Betsy Kuhn said.
The new plan, approved in November, created four start times instead of the previous three, so the bus routes could run with fewer drivers. All district schools were assigned new start and end times, most shifting by a half hour or so, but a few with more dramatic moves.
New bus times and routes went out before winter break, so everyone could begin altering their personal schedules for a revision that usually takes place over the summer. Some families faced difficult choices as they attempted to balance their jobs with their children’s schooling and care.
West Pasco parent Carla Stevens said she is having to rearrange her work because Anclote High in Holiday, where her daughter attends for Cambridge classes, will begin at 7:20 a.m. instead of 8:45 a.m. A home health care worker, Stevens said she will have to drop at least one patient in order to be on time dropping off and picking up her daughter.
To make ends meet, she expected to accept a different client in the evenings, which will interrupt what has been family time.
She anticipated early release days, where students leave school two hours earlier than usual, to cause even more problems.
“They don’t think about one-parent households that work,” Stevens said.
In Wesley Chapel, many parents worried about the traffic nightmares they expect as Wiregrass Elementary and Wiregrass Ranch High families hit the road simultaneously for an 8:10 a.m. start.
Fernanda Magliaro predicted a “massive disaster,” questioning whether the people who created the plan had visited the area. She planned to monitor the situation before taking any steps to alter her routine. District transportation officials said they were reviewing the routes, and revisions might come.
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“I am not sure how this changing will help bus drivers,” Magliaro said. “What I know is that they need improvement on salary, better buses to drive and more drivers to share the rides. Apparently, nothing they need will be fulfilled.”
The district has hired a few new drivers, but not enough to fill all routes in the three-tier system.
Some bus drivers and assistants have complained that their work hours will worsen as schools move to the four-tiered start times, with some having to get on the roads by 4 a.m. to begin their new routes. Talk of resignations has floated around, but so far hasn’t come to much, according to the district.
“Some people aren’t happy, that’s for sure,” said Kuhn, the assistant superintendent, adding that some discontent cooled after the employees saw how the new routing system would work.
Area businesses, such as dance studios and child care centers, that depend on families have contacted district officials to try to work out new schedules that fit the different start and end times. Many are adjusting, though a few are struggling to work through the details.
“It’s gonna be difficult,” Rosanne Vavasis, who runs Gotta Dance, said via Facebook. “My youngest classes start at 5:30 and even that may be too early for some. I am sure the studio will rearrange class times.”
Kuhn mentioned one day care facility that has a single bus and serves two schools that previously had different bell times. Now they’re on the same hours, making it difficult for the center to pick up all the children who go there.
The district is trying to help smooth over such logistical issues. It’s also working through reorganizing all sorts of services, from cafeteria lunches to after-school sports, so they fit with the new schedules.
As the plan ensues, Kuhn stressed it won’t be perfect immediately. At first, it will probably look like the start of a new school year, as the effort focuses on ensuring children are on the right buses.
The district will operate a call center for questions and concerns, and officials don’t anticipate all the buses will instantly be on time.
“We won’t know in the first two weeks” if the changes are having the desired effect, she said.
Some families said they were fine with the new schedules, with others suggesting that at the very least they were willing to deal with them.
“As inconvenient as it is for some families, we have to consider how the children who have been regularly very late for school have been affected and how this will help them,” said Emily Gosche-Lowden.
That’s the goal at this point, Kuhn said.
“It is for sure a big hassle. But if it gets kids to school on time, and they’re not waiting at bus stops 45 minutes to an hour, that’s what we’re wanting,” she said.
At the end of May, officials plan to review the initiative and decide how to proceed with next year’s bell and bus schedules. If there’s one thing that many have clamored for, School Board members said, it’s a reorganization of which age groups start when.
Elementary school families largely have asked for the earlier slots, while high schoolers have indicated support for later times, reflecting studies about sleep patterns.
Kuhn said such an idea is on the administration’s radar. Just not now.
“We didn’t think midyear was the time to make those shifts,” she said, suggesting the lift already is big enough.
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