pandemic-inspired busing change may become the new normal in Princeton schools.

The Princeton School Board discussed potentially continuing the two-tier busing system it began in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Board members on April 6 weighed the pros and cons of the system, which breaks up how students are delivered to school into two runs: first kindergarten through fifth grade, then sixth through 12th grades.

“We started this year out of necessity and we have to tell that we have a lot of success with that,” Superintendent Ben Barton said.

The two-tier system would have younger students picked up earlier, then the buses would go around again to pickup middle and high school students. Kindergarten through fifth grade would start school at 7:45 a.m. and be dismissed at 2 p.m. Middle and high school students would start at 8:45 a.m. and get out around 3:15 p.m., according to the district.

The district originally switched to the two-tier system at the beginning of this school year, due to capacity limits put in place by the state in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before that, the one-tier model had students from preschool to 12th grade on the same buses. That means more students on the bus for longer, Barton said. That model also required a transfer location, where students are brought to one spot to switch buses, according to Barton.

“We all want our students on the bus for the least amount of time as possible,” Barton said. “We want it to be a positive experience for them.”

Some of the pros Barton mentioned are shorter bus rides, no need for transfers, fewer behavior complaints and fewer routes — which helps alleviate the bus driver shortage. The disadvantages of the system are increased costs, changes to student schedules and working to balance before- and after-school child care, according to board documents.

The two-tier system is more expensive, costing the district an estimated $150,000 more than one-tier busing. Last year the district spent about $1.3 million on regular transportation, according to Barton.

While the program is more expensive, it is also popular. A survey sent out by the district showed 65% of respondents were in favor of the two-tier system, while 25% said they opposed it and 10% say they were neutral.

Before- and after-school child care was a sticking point for some board members during the discussion. Members considered scheduling as well as the costs parents may incur if they need additional child care. They debated what some board members had heard from parents regarding how changing times could affect when and if they need child care.

“I think we can agree that it’s going to be impossible for us to meet every single scenario of every single working family and when they start and when they don’t start work,” Barton said.

There are educational impacts as well. Board Member Eric Strandberg said he spoke with elementary teachers who favored having the kids for more of the morning.

“The elementary school teachers, they said the majority of their learning time is in the morning, before lunch,” Strandberg said.

Board members also discussed how teenagers need more sleep, which a later start time could help with.

Barton said the two-tier system also is good for addressing a shortage in bus drivers, which is impacting school districts around the state. The advantages he listed included more available hours, greater flexibility to take one or both rounds and fewer kids are easier to manage.

“As a sub driver I love it, because the second time around at least I know my route,” Barton said.

A formal vote on the matter will come before the board at an upcoming board meeting, according to Barton.

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