The Sunday Gazette-Mail conducted a year-long investigation into the burden that school closings can place on the state?s rural children. Today?s stories are part one of an ongoing series. For today?s stories, more than 80 people were interviewed and thousands of pages of school closing documents, bus schedules and internal education department records were reviewed. The Gazette-Mail also tried to answer the question, ?Just how long are kids on the bus?? But no state or county agency kept track of the time children spend riding buses. School districts in other states, such Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina, keep computerized bus records. The Charlotte Observer used that data to determine the average bus ride for area students.
In West Virginia, each county school system keeps those records differently. Many rural districts still keep handwritten bus logs. Others keep records in a computer word processing format. A few use a database program. Most keep only records of bus runs ? when they start and when they end ? but not on when each individual child is picked up by the bus.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Gazette-Mail obtained records for 1,569 bus runs for the state?s 35 most rural counties. (Those counties were considered for federal school construction funds because they were the most sparsely populated in the state.) Over the course of nine months, the newspaper constructed a database including when each run started, when it stopped, and how much time children rode in-between. The bus runs represent the longest possible time a child might ride a bus. The run began when the first person stepped on the bus, and ended when the children were dropped off at an elementary, middle or high school.
Average bus times for most counties could not be tabulated, because most don?t track when individual children board their bus. Clay County is one of the few that tracks exactly when each child boards the bus and when they are dropped off. Because of this, the Gazette-Mail was able to determine that the average Clay Elementary student spent 37 minutes on the bus, more than the state guideline of 30 minutes. The average middle school student was on the bus for 34 minutes, the average high school student for 38. The newspaper checked its results with transportation directors in all 35 counties, and made corrections to the database based on their responses. The bus run times do not include the time children stand waiting for the bus to arrive or transfer time between buses. They are ideal times, not taking into account the days when bad weather or traffic make the runs longer. For purposes of these stories, junior high schools were classified as middle schools. Buses for special education students, who often ride much longer than other students, were excluded from the database. The Gazette-Mail also relied upon two surveys of county school transportation directors, one in 1992 and the most recent in 1996. Those surveys are imperfect, because they rely upon the impressions of the directors and not hard data. If anything, they tend to underestimate the amount of time children spend on the bus.
Eric Eyre is the recipient of a six-month Journalism Fellowship in Childand Family Policy, which has supported research for this report. Thefellowships program, based at the University of Maryland, is funded by agrant from the Foundation for Child Development.