West Hall Middle School bus problems lead to long delays on the first day of school

Aug. 8—Students who ride the bus on the first day of school can usually expect delays.

But Friday's holdup may have been excessive for about 100 West Hall Middle School students.

The last bus, which carried about 20 students, didn't leave until about 5:03 p.m. Middle schoolers in Hall County are dismissed around 3:35 p.m.

About 100 students were late getting home, for several reasons, including a driver picking up the wrong group of students and another driver's bus breaking down. There were also four drivers doubling up on routes that day.

Christian Mims, the mother of a sixth grader on the last bus, described the day as one of frustration, anxiety and chaos. And it was similarly distressing for her son, she said.

"It was the first day of middle school for my son," she said. "He was freaking out that he was never going to get home."

She detailed the ordeal in a series of TikTok videos, one with nearly 24,000 views as of Monday afternoon.

She understands that buses are often late on the first few days of school, she said, but she is particularly upset that the school failed to notify parents.

"Most of the anxiety could have been easily done without had we gotten some sort of notification from the school," she said. "It's one thing to be late, but you should have notified us."

All the while, she said she couldn't get in touch with her son because students were not allowed to use their cell phones.

West Hall Principal Ethan Banks said students were, in fact, allowed to use their phones and were instructed to contact their parents. Students who didn't have cell phones used the office phone, he said.

"I've only had one phone call regarding that bus because every student that was here was able to contact their parents and let them know where they were," he said.

He acknowledged, though, that the school should have notified parents directly. Next time, he said, the school will send out a mass email to all parents.

So what happened with Mims's son and the other students who boarded that last bus? In short, a substitute driver picked up the wrong group of students.

"All of our buses go to the high school first and then come to us," Banks said. "He picked up a different group of (high school) students, and so when he got to us, he said he wasn't running that route and he didn't know who was."

Banks, who is a certified bus driver, ultimately drove the students home shortly after 5 p.m.

"Once we confirmed that there wasn't a bus coming back for that group of students," he said, "I ended up driving that group home myself."

To make matters worse, another bus broke down, and West Hall had four drivers that day who were driving double routes. In total, about 100 students were late getting home that day.

"A typical first day of school, the buses are going to be 45 minutes late," said Clay Hobbs, director of transportation for Hall County Schools. "I hate to use this word, but it's acceptable."

The reason delays are "acceptable," he said, is that schools take great care in boarding elementary students and ensuring that they are on the right bus. That takes time, he said, and it often means that drivers are late for their middle and high school routes later in the afternoon.

Things usually normalize after the first few days, he said. And while the district has struggled with dire driver shortages for the past few years, the first day of school on Friday was even bumpier than usual.

"The first day was worse than normal," he said.