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First Day Chaos as School Buses Break Down, Arrive Late

At least one child was missing for a time

“The district and the bus company were totally unprepared for the first day,” said one parent, who asked to remain anonymous. “If they can’t do simple things like familiarize the drivers with their routes and make sure the bus tracking app is working, how can we trust them with our kids?”

That sentiment was repeated on social media, where parents said a.m. buses arrived close to an hour late — with a few zooming by early, such that children ended up being driven. Having several buses break down didn’t help matters.

Moreover, there was no way for parents to track the buses as the Zonar app was not working because routes had not yet been loaded. The Our One Call notification system also failed, as did the bus company’s phone forwarding.

The afternoon was just as problematic, with some buses arriving close to an hour behind schedule. Several children boarded the wrong buses, and one was missing for a period of time.

“At this point, everyone has been located,” said TPD Chief Ryan Columbus. “It was an issue of kids getting on the wrong buses or not off at the right stop.”

TPS had its schedules in place — at the August 17 School Committee meeting, Business Manager David Libby reported that schedules were complete on the school end and were given to the bus company by August 11. Libby added that STA/Tewksbury Transit had planned to have drivers assigned and a schedule out a week ago. Yet several parents reported that drivers said they received their routes only this morning.

STA, which purchased Tewksbury Transit and is the sole provider of bus service for Tewksbury, operates more than 16,000 vehicles across the United States and Canada. It did not respond to a request for comment on how the situation will be improved for tomorrow.

The district had little choice but to sign a new contract with STA/Tewksbury Transit, whose contract had expired at the end of the 2022/23 school year. While Libby invited seven transportation companies to submit proposals, only STA/Tewksbury Transit submitted a final bid.

The three-year total for in-district service will be $8,509,380. 

Libby said there is language in the contract that protects the district in case of, for example, fewer buses than contracted for or consistent late arrivals.

In February, Student Transportation of America (STA) school bus and van drivers who provide student transportation for the Tewksbury School System voted overwhelmingly to join Teamsters Local 25.

“As a small group, we felt left behind when it came to wages and benefits,” Loretta Melanson, one of the drivers who voted to join the union, said at the time. “Now as Teamsters, we can leverage their support and strength to get us the improvements in benefits and hourly guarantees we deserve.”

Even with those improved terms and fully paid training, the company was scrambling this summer to hire enough drivers.

“There’s really no excuse,” said the parent. “The town needs to start holding the bus company accountable.”

Lorna is a U.S. Army veteran and 25-year resident of Tewksbury who has written for organizations ranging from the DIA to InformationWeek to a free weekly in New London that sent her to interview the pastry chef at Foxwoods.

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