Ridership down, but higher than expected on Milford school buses

Crystal Zimmerman prepares to make one last run before COVID-19 closed Milford schools last March.

Crystal Zimmerman prepares to make one last run before COVID-19 closed Milford schools last March.

Bill Bloxsom / Hearst Connecticut Media

MILFORD - School bus ridership is lower than it was last year, but still above the projections as parents are more comfortable than expected putting the children on buses, according to schools Chief Operations Officer Jim Richetelli. Richetelli gave a detailed briefing about the city’s school transportation to the Board of Education at its meeting Tuesday.

“People feel comfortable with the protocols that we put into place,” he said. “They feel comfortable that the district is really watching out for the health and safety of the kids on the bus.”

According to the school district, 3,813 students each day ride 62 buses and vans to 14 public and two parochial schools, plus four regional technical and magnet schools. The city contracts with Illinois-based Durham School Services for its transportation.

One area where student numbers have dropped since last year is the opt-in program, where students who are not eligible for the bus because they live too close to schoo, can be opted onto a bus, space allowing. For high school, any student living within 1.5 miles of school is not eligible to ride a bus. For middle and elementary schools, it is one mile.

The student’s parents would then be responsible for the child getting to an established stop.

This year the school board was able to place all 25 students who opted in. Last year there were 82 opt-in students.

Richetelli said that is a reflection that more parents are driving their children to school this year than in previous years.

The cost of running school buses increased 3 percent to $54,007 per route over last year due to a contracted increase. The COVID-19 pandemic that closed schools in March last year saved the city some money, although Durham School Services continued to pay drivers and monitors a percentage of their salaries during the pandemic.

Richetelli said Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders required Milford Public Schools to reach agreements with its contractors to “ensure, as much as feasible, to pay for the employees of our contractors, our bus drivers, and to avoid shortages of drivers,” as well as the continuity of service when reopening.

“So we reached an agreement with Durham [the school bus provider] that we paid 75 percent of the cost of the contract from March through June,” he said.

Finally, Richetelli praised Durham’s service during the pandemic last year, and for the company’s planning over the summer for the current school year.

For example, bus monitors have additional roles this year as the state recommends they be responsible for ensuring students on buses are wearing masks and are sitting in their designated seats. This is essential for contact tracing in the event a student is confirmed to have contracted COVID-19. Monitors also are responsible for taking attendance on the bus, Richitelli said.

“That was one of the the things that our health department was very, very adamant about,” he added. “That we have accurate attendance so that we could trace very quickly if we needed to.”