Parents sound the alarm as bus stops disappear in Barrington

District vows to address safety concerns once bus driver shortage is remedied

By Josh Bickford
Posted 9/22/21

A number of parents have started the school year concerned, frustrated, and angry about student transportation issues, bus ridership eligibility, and the Barrington School Department’s response …

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Parents sound the alarm as bus stops disappear in Barrington

District vows to address safety concerns once bus driver shortage is remedied

Posted

A number of parents have started the school year concerned, frustrated, and angry about student transportation issues, bus ridership eligibility, and the Barrington School Department’s response to the issues.

Parents say they were surprised by the district’s busing rollout: bus stops that had existed pre-pandemic were gone, and officials were strictly enforcing the two-mile ridership eligibility rule; each bus has a roster and students have assigned seats. 

Parents learned of the policy enforcement and missing bus stops just days before classes started this fall, and when they emailed the school administration with their concerns, they waited days for a response, they said. Some parents report that school officials failed to address their safety concerns altogether, and simply listed the distance from their homes to the school and pointed to the ridership policy. 

Many parents of middle school students who live in the Hampden Meadows section of Barrington are worried about their children having to navigate some of the busiest intersections in town on foot or by bike — County Road at Federal Road, Federal Road at Middle Highway, and Lincoln Avenue at Middle Highway.

“The school is asking 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds to cross the busy Rt.114 intersection twice daily,” wrote Barrington parent Honorata Lenk-Markham in a recent email to the Times. “In the morning, that intersection is filled with school traffic and people hurrying to work, and not paying attention. It's not a safe intersection for an 11-year-old to cross on their own by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think it is responsible of the school system to mandate the kids to cross it to get to school (there is no other logical way for them to go).”

Jen Stern wrote that she and her husband both work full-time, and while they were able to deal with the busing situation last year — as they were both working from home — that has not been the case this year. She wrote that they are very concerned about their child’s safety. 

“We live 1.8-plus miles from the middle school. According to Google maps, it is a 29-minute walk (one-way) to BMS… does anyone running the schools think it is acceptable for a 12-year-old to have to walk an hour to and from the school every day carrying a ridiculously heavy backpack?” Ms. Stern wrote. “This doesn't take into consideration how unsafe Federal Road is to walk or bike. This is the main route traveled by cars to get to BMS. Not only is there no sidewalk but limited shoulder. It's not a safe route. Crossing from Federal to Middle is also extremely dangerous… And if the school's advice is for kids to take a different route where sidewalks are accessible, well guess what? You've just increased their distance to school to over 2 miles.”

Working parents who cannot drive their children to school and who are not comfortable sending them out on foot have had to seek alternatives. Some are paying neighbors to drive their kids to school each day. Others have organized carpools. In many cases, students who had previously been riding buses are now in cars, and the resulting traffic impact has created other issues.

Emily Conner lives in Hampden Meadows and has a child who attends Barrington Middle School. She said that during the 2020-21 school year, district officials told parents they needed to reduce ridership due to Covid safety protocols, and that officials would be enforcing the two-mile bus eligibility rules. Ms. Conner said her family and most others adjusted to the change last year, but she was very surprised when the schools announced they would be enforcing the two-mile ridership rule this year, knowing how that would impact traffic congestion.

“I do not believe the roads, driveways, and parking lots were designed to handle that number of cars on bad weather days, or even that number of walkers and bikers along with a modest increase of cars on good weather days,” she wrote. 

“I haven’t heard any reason why they are now enforcing the 2-mile rule. Why didn’t they enforce it before covid? What are the problems now? Is it money? Available buses / drivers?”

Barrington Superintendent of Schools Michael Messore said the answer is bus drivers. Mr. Messore said the district’s contracted bus company, Ocean State, is experiencing a bus driver shortage, and he needs to resolve that issue before the school department can take a closer look at whether it is able to add more stops.

“We’re not ignoring it,” Mr. Messore said about parents’ concerns. “I wish it were a quick fix… Down the road, there are likely to be changes.”

Mr. Messore said the bus company has been struggling to find enough drivers to fill all the bus routes. Within the first few days of school, Barrington had to shift students onto different buses because Ocean State did not have a driver for Bus 4.

“When I have the branch manager (for the bus company) driving buses, yeah, it’s an issue,” Mr. Messore said, adding that the company has also had the dispatcher driving buses at times.

“I’m not blaming the company. They’re trying to bring in more drivers.”

A school bus driver shortage has plagued districts across the region — it was recently reported that Massachusetts officials brought in the National Guard to help drive school buses there.

Still, the district’s challenges have, at times, served as little consolation to parents who fear for their children’s safety as they make their way to and from school. And some parents wonder if two miles is an appropriate distance to ask a student to walk or ride a bike to school each day.

Elizabeth Kirkpatrick said she is fortunate to be able to provide transportation to her children who would otherwise have to walk to school each day. But she is concerned for those who are left with no choice but to send their children out on foot or riding bikes. The issue concerned her so much that she began researching ridership eligibility rules at schools districts across Rhode Island. She compared mile eligibility and found that there are only three school districts in the state that have a two-mile distance or greater requirement: Woonsocket, Smithfield and Barrington.

“The average mileage for eligibility for high school is 1.45 miles,” she wrote. “Smithfield and Barrington are the only districts that require 2 miles for middle school districts (Smithfield is rural and twice the size of Barrington). The average distance for middle school students is 1.78.” 

(Ms. Kirkpatrick wrote that Tiverton’s information was not available online and therefore not included in her comparison.)

Mr. Messore said the district’s student transportation policy has been in place for years. He said the two-mile rule was not added this year. Mr. Messore said that part of the issue is that bus stops were added in prior years that violated the policy. Some of those bus stops made very little sense, he said, referencing one stop that was located about a quarter-mile from the high school.

“There was no rhyme or reason” to those stops, he said. 

The superintendent added that the district is “absolutely aware” of the safety concerns.

“Our priority is safety. I say it in all my communications, and I mean it,” he said. 

Mr. Messore said bus company officials have confirmed that there will be opportunities for changes. 

“This was ‘Day Five,’” Mr. Messore said during an interview last week, “and it’s the first day all the buses are running. 

“We’re five days into school. We are going to address the safety concerns.”

Some parents question the decision to remove the bus stops that are located inside the two-mile distance. 

“… for as long as I remember we’ve had bus stops,” wrote Ms. Lenk-Markham. “Even after the change of school start times we had a bus. The school will tell you that our stops were added on because they were lenient, that those stops were an ‘add on.’ That may be the case, but by allowing it for year after year (more than 15 years?) that on-going decision set a precedent. For all of these years I have never NOT had a bus.”

Elizabeth Clare wrote an email to the school committee, the superintendent, and the director of student transportation Melissa Resendes addressing the issue.

“I understand this has been the policy, but per the school committee/administration decision for years it was not imposed. I truly do not think the full impact of this sudden enforcement was well thought out,” she wrote.

District’s response

Parents have also been frustrated with the district’s roll-out of the transportation changes, the communication of the plan, and the district’s response to their concerns.

Maryam Mohajer has children who attend the high school and the middle school and she decided to write an email to the district calling attention to safety concerns she had with their commutes to school. She lives in Hampden Meadows and her children need to travel along Massasoit Avenue over the White Church Bridge, through the intersection with County Road and Federal Road, and down other roads — some with sidewalks, and some without — before reaching school.

“I just got a response this morning to the bus safety form saying ours is not a safety issue,” she wrote. “Same response I’m sure everyone received.”

Megan Turillo lives in a different part of town but requested a safety review for her child’s commuting route also.

“I requested a safety review with the provided form from BPS and received my response today stating that we reside 1.53 miles from BMS and 2 miles from BHS and therefore my children do not qualify for buses,” Ms. Turillo wrote. “The ‘safety’ part of the review was absent and there was no justification given otherwise. It was very reminiscent of a form letter to cover themselves legally and appease parents but lacking in any real substance of course.”

Mr. Messore said once the district is able to remedy the bus driver shortage it will further examine the ridership eligibility distance issue. He said there could be changes made soon, and if those changes are sustainable, they could be considered for a policy shift.

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