WASHINGTON AND HOLMES COUNTIES - Not only is mid-August the commencement of schools, it's also the peak of hurricane season. Torrential rains usually flood roads and make dirt or clayed roads impassible.
The inclement weather poses an inconvenience and hazard for school buses. But when it comes to transporting students, bus departments in Washington and Holmes counties run fleets that prioritize safety.
"The goal that we always have is to transport our kids to and from each school each day," said Washington County School District Director of Operations Bill Lee. "And that starts at the first day of school and goes to the last day of the school year."
Lee, who runs a fleet of 50 buses over 40 routes and transports about 2,500 students, will transfer his duty to Dawn Spooner in December. Spooner, who has been with WCSD for 17 years, emphasized the importance of keeping an open line of communication between the school bus driver and parent.
"We really rely on our relationship between our driver and our parent," Spooner said, noting the district doesn't have software that will send out notifications to parents when buses are delayed or canceled. "Our drivers pick up the phone and call every parent ... they will give them alternative bus stops."
While the transportation department will make initial contact with parents via a phone call to inform them where there child's bus stop is and times of pick-up and drop-off, parents should make sure their drivers have always have updated and accurate telephone numbers, Spooner said. If parents have questions, they may call her at the district office.
All of Washington County school buses are equipped with cameras and GPS, which aides the department in locating buses and establishing arrival times.
Holmes County School District has revisited some of its procedures following a bus accident that occurred on a rainy day in March that, although no students were seriously injured, caused a good amount of panic after the bus was unable to be located.
"As most of you know, we can talk to the moon, but we can’t talk across Holmes County on our cellphones," HCSD Superintendent Terry Mears told agencies in attendance at the follow-up meeting held at Doctors Memorial Hospital in March. "So that was a long trip not knowing (more information about what was happening). And then I was calling and sometimes I could talk and sometimes I couldn’t."
The bus was equipped with GPS, however, since the transportation director was called to the scene prior to arriving at the office where she could have viewed the coordinates of the bus, she and other officials relied on using their cell phones to communicate to each other and locate the bus. They would realize the inclement weather would weaken signal and obstruct communication.
The sheriff's office has since given two two-way radio scanners to the school district.
"I want to thank that driver for fighting that bus," Mears said at the March meeting. "She did a really good job at fighting that bus and keeping it from being worse trouble than it was."
Both school districts work with local emergency management offices to monitor traffic, weather and road conditions.
Drivers should pay attention to bus signs, particularly when a bus is stopped and the signs wing outward signaling traffic from both directions to stop, officials said.
"It takes a whole team to make sure our buses and routes are safe," Lee said.