Of all the things that signal the start of a new school year, possibly one of the largest, literally, is the sight of a line of big yellow school buses.
Routes are being finalized and tires are being replaced as the Ohio State Highway Patrol finishes summer rounds of inspections to ensure all buses are up to state standards.
Facing everything from construction woes to the closing of an entire school, schools across Washington County are preparing to bus hundreds of students to their respective schools when school begins later this month.
JACKIE RUNION The Marietta Times
Mechanic Jeff Lauer changes a filter under the hood of one of the Marietta City School District’s several dozen buses, part of the summertime routine to prepare fleets for the start of the new school year.
A new year
After the closing of Lawrence Elementary School, the Frontier district had to do some tweaking so that Lawrence's approximately 40 students would have the ability to be bused to other schools, with the majority headed to Newport Elementary.
"The routes haven't changed a lot, but we've readjusted a couple for Lawrence kids so they can get rides," said Frontier Superintendent Bruce Kidder. "It wasn't much, we just had to make sure they could get to Newport or wherever they were going."
Belpre City School District: Aug. 19.
Caldwell Exempted Village School District: Sept. 2.
Fort Frye Local School District: Aug. 20.
Frontier Local School District: Aug. 21.
Marietta City School District: Aug. 20.
Noble Local School District: Aug. 18.
Switzerland of Ohio Local School District: Aug. 26.
Warren Local School District: Aug. 20.
Washington County Career Center: Aug. 20, first day of school for first-year students; Aug. 21, first day of school for all returning students.
Williamstown schools: Aug. 18.
Wolf Creek Local School District: Aug. 19.
Frontier has been working on plans for new buses, but bidding has yet to be finalized as the board continues to discuss what the most cost-effective options are.
In Marietta, traffic-stalling summer construction throughout the city, concentrated in the Pike Street area, is expected to cause delays that Marietta City Schools Transportation Director Dave Davis said just has to be dealt with as it comes.
"It will put us behind from time to time, but most of the time we just have to slug it out," he said. "We use some detours and keep in communication, and if things start backing up, they'll radio in and cut across County House Lane and come in on (Ohio) 26."
Davis said though the district foresees delays for a while after school begins, it is something drivers are fully prepared to handle with radios and constant communication.
"We get the calls, and the phone always rings off the hook for the first few days because things are late," he said.
Davis said the district also has the issue of Millcreek Road where the bus garage is, with the thick traffic of large vehicles trying to pull onto Colegate Drive. Construction is under way at that site as well to widen the roadway.
"Thermo Fisher has a lot of trucks and tractor trailers and a lot of employees, and it's very narrow for all of us back there," Davis said. "The county and city all came together to provide better access for us."
At Fort Frye Local Schools, Superintendent Stephanie Starcher, who is serving as the director of transportation for the upcoming school year, said letters were recently mailed home to families alerting them of changed bus routes.
"This summer we have updated a few routes to reduce student time spent on buses, total time driven per day, and total miles driven per day, but our school start and end times are still the same," Starcher said.
School buses, along with commercial and church buses, have to undergo inspections for safety purposes through the Ohio State Highway Patrol, a program that includes three summertime inspections for schools.
Law requires school buses to pass each inspection and to be fully-functional and fully-maintained before use for the new year.
"We're one of the first to go through them, and we try to keep ours up to state standards all the time, so it's not normally an issue for us," Davis said.
Davis said over the summer, Marietta's 22 buses have only gone through some moderate maintenance issues, mostly tire replacements, to get ready for next year.
State inspectors run through the exterior, interior, engine undercarriage and brakes of a bus before approving it for use of transportation, and by now, districts are finishing up and making last minute changes.
"At Fort Frye, we have ordered two new buses and all of our other buses have passed inspection," said Starcher. "We will likely be selling two buses later this fall from our fleet."
Fort Frye, like most other districts, is also running test drive routes during the days leading up to the start of school to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible when children load up the buses.
Lisa Spence, transportation and operations director for Warren Local Schools, said the district currently has 28 buses for its 28 routes.
"All the buses, we go through them with a fine-tooth comb and check them from top to bottom with mechanics all year, and do any body work necessary," she said. "Then the state comes through and does those inspections, where they go through them and check for any abnormal parts, cracks in a frame, wipers, everything."
One of the larger districts in the county, Warren's district covers 196 square miles and buses drive 2,700 miles per day.
"And we're looking for subs right now, as all districts need that right now," Spence said. "We currently only have three regular drivers, and the rest we rely on substitutes."
Wolf Creek Local reported no issues going into the new school year with its nine daily routes, plus an additional three buses that go to St. John Central Grade School and the Washington County Career Center, which receives students from schools across the county.
"All buses passed inspection and are ready to roll on the 19th," said Superintendent Bob Caldwell.