Schools in Framingham have turned to a bus tracking app to revamp routes and make them more efficient in an effort to alleviate travel times for students while grappling with a statewide shortage of bus drivers.
(TNS) — A possible revamping of bus routes and a new tracking app, as well as a host of other changes, are on the table, as school officials try to prevent the district's busing woes from creeping into the next school year.
Framingham students who relied on bus transportation have reported buses being 30 minutes or more late since the beginning of the school year. While the problem has improved since the fall, the main culprit is a driver shortage, which has left busing contractors with few permanent drivers, said Lincoln Lynch IV, the district's finance chief.
"The goal is not having one student late to school," said Lynch.
The pool of possible candidates has shrunk in recent years in Massachusetts, according to data from the state Department of Transportation. The number of licensed active bus drivers dropped by 210 drivers over two years, falling from 9,725 in 2016 to 9,515 in 2018.
"It (the shortage) has grown more severe over the last handful of years as the economy has gathered steam ... with the economy being stronger now, there are jobs outside of transportation that pay more," said Nicole Schlosser, the executive editor of the trade magazine School Bus Fleet.
Drivers do not work directly for Framingham Public Schools, instead they are hired by Durham School Services, an Illinois-based company that has a $29 million contract to provide transportation services to the schools until 2021. Counting permanent and back-up drivers, Durham is operating at 105% staffing in Framingham, according to a representative of the company.
If too many Framingham drivers call out sick or do not come to work for other reasons, the bus drivers sometimes cover two routes around the city in one day, meaning students are late arriving to school or on their way home.
Nationally, 20% of bus contractors called their driver shortage severe and nearly half reported that they are experiencing a moderate shortage, according to a 2018 survey by School Bus Fleet.
Just over 5% said their company is experiencing no shortage.
Other districts, such as Sudbury, Weston, and Worcester, have also struggled with similar busing problems.
The Montana software company Education Logistics (EduLog) is currently analyzing the schools' long-standing bus routes and is expected to make recommendations on how the district can make its routes more efficient. The routes were last examined about nine years ago, said Lynch, saying it was time to "start from scratch."
"Really, we've been status quo throughout the years ... their system might suggest a total revamp of the routes across the city and all the bus stops that have been in Framingham for years and years could be changed to create efficiencies," said Lynch. "I know it's convenient for parents to have consistent stops year to year, but I think we hit a tipping point where we might have some leeway, some options to do it differently next year."
Robert Tremblay, the superintendent of schools, said the study will "look all the routes from the ground-up."
"We're hoping we can right-size the number of drivers and right-size the number of buses," said Tremblay.
During the next school year, school officials will also roll out a new app attached the EduLog's routing software called EduTracker. In an Uber-style platform, it will allow parents and guardians to track via GPS when the bus will arrive to their student's stop.
The schools will likely test the app in a smaller scale pilot before using it district-wide.
In the fall, some athletic trips were delayed or canceled altogether due to the driver shortage. The district purchased its own 16-passenger van that it can use to transport student-athletes to games, with a coach stepping in as a driver.
— Framingham Athletics (@FHSFlyersSports) December 21, 2018
Down the road, the district hopes to use the vehicle for field trips and have more vehicles available.
"It's a financially sound move where you aren't paying for a large yellow school bus to transport 12 kids to Walpole, when we can use our 16 passenger bus, that has storage," said Lynch.
New elementary school schedule
School officials are also eyeing a new schedule at the elementary schools as a way to relieve some of the busing problems. Next year will see elementary schools' teaching time extend by 15 minutes in a move that will bring Framingham students' time in class in line with students in neighboring towns.
Lynch said EduLog will offer recommendations on the best ways the schools can make use of the extra 15 minutes, saying he expects it to be a "blended approach of what we're doing now and some new options."
"It will give us the data to back up our decision," said Lynch.
©2019 MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.