The school transportation crisis in Baton Rouge, now in its fourth week, has led to children missing a lot of school in a short amount of time, time that many students in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system will need to make up and do so before Christmas.
With a severe shortage of drivers as well as working buses, children have been routinely stranded this year as they waited for late or nonexistent buses. To get their kids to school, parents have opted to drive their kids or set up impromptu carpool arrangements, some taking time off work to do so.
That disruption, and the shifting response to it, have also come at the expense of instructional time:
Louisiana spells out the minimum time that school-age children need to be in school each year.
Elementary schools in Baton Rouge have not lost much time overall, and they have more cushion in their schedules, allowing them to more easily comply with state law.
Middle and high schools, by contrast, lost far more time. And students taking courses for high school credit have to make up for lost time during the same semester.
By the end of this week, school officials calculate that students in local middle and high schools will have foregone 1,340 minutes of class time overall, more than 22 hours. All of that time will have to be made up by December.
Last week, Superintendent Sito Narcisse announced two options to make up that time:
- Option A: Convert a half day, Sept. 20, and a full day, Oct. 12, from teacher-only days to regular school days. Extend the fall semester by two days, Dec. 18 and 19, but start the spring semester later, with students and staff returning Jan. 8 in order to impinge less on winter break.
- Option B: Add 13 minutes to the school day, starting on Sept. 11, but only for middle and high schools. Convert a half day, Sept. 20, and a full day, Oct. 12, from teacher-only days to regular school days.
The fate of Option A and B is unclear.
The options were presented to the School Board last Thursday as part of a larger proposal to scrap the district’s long-standing two-tier school schedule where middle and high schools start at 7:10 a.m. and elementary schools start at 8:25 a.m. In its place, Narcisse proposed a three-tier schedule where high schools start at 7 a.m, middle schools at 8 a.m., and elementary schools at 9 a.m.
The School Board, however, ended up balking at the proposed schedule change, saying it was too disruptive. Instead, the board directed Narcisse to try again.
In the meantime, students are learning on a temporary schedule that went into place Aug. 22 in which middle and high school students end the day an hour early. That temporary schedule is set to end Friday. Narcisse has yet to say whether he plans to extend it, revert back to the traditional two-tier schedule or do something else.
The parish School Board is not scheduled to meet again until Sept. 7.
Narcisse had floated the idea of seeking a waiver from Louisiana’s instructional minute requirements, but State Superintendent Cade Brumley said he made it clear in a recent phone conversation with Narcisse that East Baton Rouge would not qualify for such a waiver. State law reserves such waivers for “a natural catastrophe or disaster,” or during a state-declared emergency where a school is forced to share space with another school.
While the school system is not off the hook, all East Baton Rouge students will be excused absences and late arrivals to school during the first four weeks of school, ending Friday.
Any changes made this semester to the school schedule won’t be the last if schools end up losing more instructional time in the future for other reasons. Baton Rouge schools have lost school time in the recent past thanks to bad weather and to COVID.
The school system has been taking other steps to address the transportation crisis and related issues:
- Reestablishing a transfer point for elementary students, which the board directed Narcisse to do last week. On Wednesday, the school system plans to reopen such a transfer point, but only for students who ride special education buses.
- Putting six more buses on the road this week. These are part of 13 new diesel buses with air conditioning that the district has purchased from Alexandria-based Ross Bus & Equipment Sales at a cost of $1.7 million. The remaining seven buses, which the district expected this week as well, are not set to arrive until mid-October, school officials say.
- Increasing pay for cafeteria workers by moving them five steps up their respective salary schedules. It comes on top of a one-time $3,000 stipend the School Board approved last week at a cost of $1.5 million. District policy allows the superintendent to make limited step increases for employees without having to go to the board. It’s unclear how much the new step increases will cost overall. Nine-month employees will see the increase on their checks issued Thursday, while employees who work 10 to 12 months of the year won’t see the extra money until their Sept. 14 paycheck. Top child nutrition program administrators are not receiving these new step increases. By jumping five steps, a full-time bottom-rung cafeteria worker will see their pay go from $19,681 to $20,941, an increase of $1,260.