Snowday grade for Fayette’s school bus drivers: ‘Perfect’

One of the many Fayette School System buses delivering children to their homes safely Jan. 28. Photo/Special.

178 bus routes traversed on ice and snow without mishap, all kids home by 7 p.m. Tuesday evening

Bus drivers with the Fayette County School System have been called heroes for their actions in making sure children made it home safely during the onset of the winter storm that hit the county during school hours Jan. 28.

Three of those bus drivers and the school system’s transportation director Roxane Owen on Jan. 31 discussed the events of the Tuesday trek to get students home after classes were dismissed early due to increasing snowfall and plummeting temperatures that caused ice to form on roadways.

Transported Tuesday on 178 school buses covering 21,000 miles, the last of Fayette’s students arrived home just before 7 p.m.

Bus drivers went into action on Jan. 28 when the decision was made to release classes early due to changing weather conditions. Carolyn Housser’s route includes students from Inman Elementary School and Whitewater High School in southeast Fayette. Housser said her route includes a number of well-travelled roads.

“I’m from the north so I have experience driving in the snow,” Housser said. “Classes were released early and the kids were waiting. The kids were a little anxious, but they were on their best behavior. I see distractions every day. We saw more of them on Tuesday. I saw a lot of cars in ditches. You have to go slow.”

Housser noted the significant responsibility that comes with getting children home safely.

“It’s a lot of responsibility. I had great parents out there waiting for the kids,” Housser said, also noting the efforts of all drivers. “We focus on getting the job done. The drivers felt like a family. We were communicating with each other (through the radio system that allows communications between all buses and the transportation office) and with the office.”

The route driven by bus driver Sherry Harris includes students from North Fayette Elementary and Sandy Creek High School in north Fayette.

“This was my first time driving in anything like this. I told the elementary kids to have a seat and be quiet. You could hear a pin drop. I told them their parents were waiting for them and counting on me,” said Harris.

Though uneventful in terms of accidents, the drive was far from ordinary.

“We got stuck briefly on a hill in one subdivision but we kept moving. On (Ga.Highway) 92 North there were two (vehicles) about to slide into the bus,” though Harris said the accident was averted. “(Throughout transport), the children’s behavior on the bus was outstanding.”

Harris said a parent told her they were praying for her.

“It meant a lot to know that parents were praying for us,” said Harris. “One parent said the only reason they let their child ride the bus was because I was driving.”

Harris was quick to compliment her fellow drivers and the staff back at the school system office.

“Transportation did a great job coordinating (drivers’ efforts). And the bus drivers were communicating, letting others know what areas to avoid,” she said. “We have great staff. Everybody was working together. Some drivers picked up students for other drivers. Everybody chipped in and got it done and the kids got home safely.”

Mark Ballard drives a special needs bus that serves Spring Hill Elementary School and Bennett’s Mill Middle School.

“(Ballard) and the special needs monitor helped reassure the kids. The kids are precious and important. We took it slow,” said Ballard, adding that he got a call on the way to the school to help with another route. “We got held up a couple of times in the north side of the county. Sometimes we had to wait 10-15 minutes. There were a lot of cars having problems and some wrecks. We went slow so there was no real problem with slipping.”

As for the experience of traversing the roadways in the winter storm, Ballard said it was a team effort.

In terms of communication with the transportation office and other buses Ballard said, “I could hear everything going on on the radio. To be an icy day I thought everything went tremendously well. In training I learned to always keep the kids safe and to use common sense. If you remember those two things you will come through.”

Transportation director Roxane Owen also remarked on the efforts of the drivers of 178 bus routes.

“The school system put out the word that schools would close early, then sent out another notification for drivers to begin even earlier,” Owen said. “As the day progressed we got a bit more anxious. There was only one accident involving a bus on Tuesday afternoon. It was a minor accident that occurred after students were dropped off and a vehicle slid into a school bus.”

Owen also complimented the staff at the transportation office who fielded calls and passed updated information to the drivers.

“We have a great team of drivers, shop staff and supervisors. The shop staff went to different areas of the county to help out if needed while the supervisors and other transportation department staff were on, answering phones and communicating on the radio,” Owen said, noting that the radio system is one where everyone is on the same system. “Some drivers couldn’t get to their school due to traffic delays. Other drivers helped those who got delayed. The drivers and bus monitors did an awesome job. So did the shop and transportation staff talking to drivers and taking calls. And the schools helped by taking updated route information out to the bus drivers.”

When all was done, the last student was delivered home at 6:55 p.m. said Owen.

“Our drivers did a phenomenal job. Our drivers were the heroes,” she said.

Deputy Superintendent Sam Sweat echoed Owen’s sentiment.

“I can’t tell you how well the drivers and everyone did, especially with the weather hitting us so hard and so quickly,” said Sweat. “There was excellent coordination between the school system and the county government.”

There were areas around the county where accidents and traffic back-ups hindered the flow of vehicles. Among those were sections of Ga. highways 54, 74, 85 and 92, Ebenezer Church Road, Lee’s Mill Road and North Peachtree Parkway. The list of problem areas extended far beyond these, showing up in countless shady areas of roadways.

It was noteworthy that each of the bus drivers emphasized that their travel on icy roads was made safer because they drove slowly. That bit of wisdom is one that every driver of every vehicle might remember the next time the roads become icy.

Put in perspective, the 178 drivers on Tuesday travelled their customary 21,000 miles of every kind of county roadway. They drove slowly and with caution. The only accidents came when another motorist, who was subsequently charged with DUI alcohol, slid into one of the buses after the children had been dropped off.

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