Eagle County Schools evaluates changing bell times to offset bus driver shortage

In order to serve the needs of students and families, the district is evaluating standardizing bell times across grade levels

Currently, Eagle County Schools has 18 drivers on staff but requires a team of 35 to effectively serve the needs of its students. In order to offset this shortage, it is considering making changes to bell times next year.
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School bus drivers are the first district employees to greet students in the morning and the last to say goodbye. However, after battling a bus driver shortage for most of the year, students may be greeted by their bus driver at a different time next year.

Currently, the district has 18 drivers on staff but requires a team of 35 to effectively serve the needs of its students. And while Eagle County Schools has implemented a number of recruiting and retaining efforts — including adding a hiring and retention bonus and making increases to the base salary — it is still having a difficult time filling these positions.

“The national, state and local demand for quality bus drivers is rising at a steady pace,” said Tim Owsley, Eagle County Schools’ director of transportation, at the May 12 Board of Education meeting. He later added that “This is a situation that can’t be ignored. We will need to make a change and we want input from the community, and ultimately, we want to make a decision that provides transportation access to as many students as possible here in Eagle County.”

In order to offset the shortage of drivers, the district is considering making changes to its bell times — something that Denver Public Schools recently did for the same reason.

Essentially, what Owsley proposed to the board would standardize bell times for elementary school, middle school and high school students. The proposed new bell times would create 45-minute gaps between the bell times for each age group. This is the amount of time required for the drivers to get to stops across the district and deliver students to school on time.

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The board was presented with two possible tiered bell schedules for the next school year. Both schedules standardize bell times by grade level.
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Owsley presented two possible bell schedules that would achieve the desired effect. The first would make the following changes:

  • PK-5 students would all start at 7:30 a.m. and end at 2:30 p.m. Currently, preschool starts at 8:50 a.m. and ends at 2:50 p.m., and elementary schools start at 8:00 a.m. and end at 2:50 p.m.
  • Homestake Peak School grades K-8 would start at 8:15 a.m. and end at 3:15 a.m. Currently, Homestake splits its bell times based on grade: K-5 students start at 8:30 a.m. and 3:20 p.m. and 6-8 students start at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 3:50 p.m.
  • Both high schools would start at 8:15 a.m. and end at 3:15 p.m. Currently, Battle Mountain starts at 8:20 a.m. and ends at 3:50 p.m. and Eagle Valley High School starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m.
  • All the middle schools would start at 9 a.m. and end at 4 p.m. Currently, Eagle Valley Middle and Gypsum Creek start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 3:50 p.m. Berry Creek Middle starts at 8:25 a.m. and ends at 3:50 p.m.

The second schedule proposes the same changes for PK-5 and Homestake K-8 students, but switches the start times for high school and middle school students. In the second proposed bell schedule, high schools would start at 9 a.m. and end at 4 p.m., and middle schools would start at 8:15 a.m. and end at 3:15 p.m.

According to Owsley, the benefit of this “triple-tier bell schedule” as a possible solution is multi-faceted. First, it could lead to more driver retention, as the schedule would give drivers more full-time opportunities with longer and more consistent hours. Second, it would create more equitable instructional minutes across grade levels. And thirdly, it would actually make the drop-off times closer to bell times for students. It also, he said, would provide a better quality of service and reduce operating costs.

There were additional, individual benefits to these changes in bell times. For example, Eagle Valley prefers the later (9 a.m.) start time as a way to reduce traffic problems along U.S. Highway 6 near the school. For elementary students, even though the start time is 30 minutes earlier, the pick-up time for buses would likely only change by 10 to 15 minutes, and would drop them off that much closer to their bell times. It was also noted that there have been sleep studies done, which support later start times for middle schools.

This solution isn’t perfect, however. Even with a revised bell schedule, the district needs between 25 and 27 drivers to make it possible. If the district cannot hire these additional drivers, it may need to consider making additional changes.

At the board meeting, the board members discussed some of the potential downsides to changing the schedule. This included a potential increase in unsupervised time for students, particularly for middle school students, that are dropped by parents; reduced access to transportation services; students walking and waiting for stops in the dark; possible decreases in instructional time; possibly needing additional after school and before school options and more.

Ultimately, Owsley, and the board agreed, that among other options, this was the best place to start. Some of the other options included increasing walking distance to bus stops, removing and consolidating stops, discontinuing transportation for high school students, encouraging or incentivizing local bus transportation options as well as significantly reducing transportation to athletic, activities and field trips.

“We have lose-lose situations going on because nobody wants to have the bus services cut anymore than they are,” said Kate Cocchiarella, president of the school board. She went on to call this situation “one of those wicked problems that has no good solutions.”

The district will be conducting a community survey to gauge public opinion on these possible changes, the results of which will be presented at the May 26 board meeting. Following these results, and taking into consideration the board and community response, the district is looking to make its final decision about these changes at either the May 26 or June 9 school board meeting.

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