At the start of this school year, officials say several Richmond County special-needs buses were experiencing pickup delays.
Since then, the schools transportation department says, things have improved, partly because of adding a special-needs bus to a Willis Foreman Elementary route a week ago. The department also is examining ways to shorten some routes for the 30 special-needs buses, possibly by switching some riders from one bus to another. No specific plans exist for such route adjustments yet.
"For the most part, our (complaint) calls have stopped," said Vaneary Gibson, the special-needs coordinator for the schools' Transportation Department.
Ms. Gibson said that when school started some special-needs buses were 30 to 45 minutes late picking up pupils from school. She said just one bus -- which serves Wilkinson Gardens Elementary -- continues to be of concern. She said her department is working to correct that problem.
"There is a problem of getting (special-needs) buses here, and we're looking at solutions and the transportation folks have been working with us," said Wilkinson Gardens Principal Rickey Lumpkin, adding that as recently as Wednesday one special-needs student had to wait more than an hour after school for his bus.
The wait also affects special-needs teachers, who must accompany their students.
"It is a bit of a burden when we're supposed to leave 15 minutes early every day because of our furlough," said Nicholle Bracken, a special-education teacher at Wilkinson Gardens. She said that with the recent furloughs teachers can leave at 4 p.m., but she can be at school waiting on a bus until 4:15 p.m.
"I see where they're rearranging some things. ... Hopefully they can work this one out," she said.
Interim schools Transportation Director Jimmie Wiley said the delays occur each school year, partly because of the distances drivers must sometimes travel. Pickups and drop-offs occur at the homes of special-needs students instead of at a bus stop, and some students might live far from the school they attend, he said.
This year's flu also hasn't helped, and many drivers have called in sick, officials say.
"The main issue that we're facing is personnel," Mr. Wiley said.
He said it's hard to replace a sick special-needs bus driver with someone unfamiliar with the route.
Ms. Gibson said there also are more special-needs students this year, although she couldn't say exactly how many. Overall, she said, 700 special-needs students are in the school system this year.
Mr. Wiley said he has been working to fill about 10 driver positions, people who could help offset those out sick. He also said that his department has been grappling with route changes amid rezoning, the opening of the new Pine Hill Middle School, middle school students attending A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet School for the first time and the school-choice option, which allowed about 375 students to switch schools.
Despite such challenges, "If we can improve on the travel time from start to finish and get to no later than an hour (for each student), I think we'll be doing fine," he said of all bus routes.
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