Last year, when Dianne Janczewski had to work late or rearrange her schedule, she knew that she could send her children home on the bus of one of their fellow students at Willow Springs Elementary School.
If Janczewski, a Fairfax government consultant and mother of a Willow Springs’ student for three years, found herself in a bind, she could call a child’s parents and arrange for a "bus note" from both parents. Her children could then ride home on their pre-arranged friend’s bus before getting picked up by their mother later that evening.
But at the start of this school year, Janczewski realized that those days were over.
"Somewhere along the line, [bus notes] became an issue where they said that it was too much work to track all these notes," Janczewski said. "It was all a very confusing process where they had printed something in the school newsletter saying that bus notes would no longer be accepted for play dates."
The problem was made apparent during the first week of school when a friend of Janczewski’s daughter was barred from riding home with her last week, despite having both the signed notes. According to Janczewski, she was supposed to watch the girl until her mother arrived home from working late. Instead, the girl had to stay at the school until 6:30 p.m., when her mother could come and pick her up.
AFTER THAT incident, e-mails began to circulate among Willow Springs parents about the policy shift. During a regularly scheduled PTA meeting at the school on Sept. 11, the problem came to a head when principal Liz Rhein refused to reinstate the bus transfer policy.
More troubling to some of the parents at the meeting was the presence of security guards from Fairfax County Public Schools Office of Safety and Security. Rhein told parents that the officers’ presence was a normal precaution taken during Sept. 11. According to Fairfax County Public School officials, presence of security guards at larger meetings is not uncommon.
"I know it sounds very trivial, but to a lot of us, we come home late, we work or have a meeting late," Janczewski said, "and we’ll call up to a friend and we’ll ask them if they can watch her kid a little longer. It’s very important in our lives."
According to Janczewski, reinstatement of the policy was not even an option to Rhein.
"For us not to be even heard on this issue and to meet us at this meeting with … guards is just unacceptable," she said.
Rhein explained to parents that the bus notes required too many confirmation phone calls, which proved unacceptable. Janczewski and other parents countered that they never received confirmation calls on bus notes from the school.
THE DECISION TO do away with the possibility of "most" of the school’s temporary bus transfers had more to do with managing the 80 to 90 daily bus notes and students’ safety, said Rhein in a telephone interview Monday, Sept. 17. Willow Springs Elementary enrolled about 650 students this year, according to county figures.
The possibility of children being misplaced on buses or staff being unable to locate a child in the case of an emergency as a result of the switch made the program more trouble than it was worth, said Rhein. She has been the principal at the school for four years and an FCPS employee since 1994.
"This can become a real problem because we have to match notes, make phone calls, confirm the changes, and the more changes we have, the more opportunities there were for us to make mistakes," she said. "We need to be 100 percent accurate 100 percent of the time, and 99 percent accurate is just not suitable when it comes to children’s safety."
The policy shift is also meant to more closely adhere to FCPS regulations, according to Paul Regnier, a spokesperson for the school district.
"To me, this move appears to be in accordance with what the School Board passed as acceptable regulations for students and temporarily changing the bus that they are normally supposed to be riding," Regnier said.
FCPS regulations on bus transportation approved in 2004 state that "principals should discourage requests for exceptions to riding regularly assigned buses when safety and hardship considerations are not involved."
AT A SCHOOL in which "the majority" of the requests are for students looking to engage in social relationships and activities, allowing children to temporarily transfer buses should be reserved only for students whose parents are in the midst of emergencies, Rhein said.
"It’s not that we’re trying not to be helpful, but these are complicated issues, especially when you consider the volume of these requests that we have to do," she said. "We just want parents to arrange their social play dates outside of the school when children are home and with their parents and they can be managed by their parents."
The problem for Janczewski is not that her children cannot go to friends’ houses for social occasions. The bus transfers help to better manage parents and children’s necessities.
"I can see where they don’t want to organize kids social lives, and that’s totally understandable," she said. "But the problem is that they’re starting to make judgment calls on the purpose for a bus note. The kids have projects to do, sometimes we have to work late, so it’s not a good thing for us to have to deal with this now."
For Jan Falk, a family therapist and Willow Springs Elementary School parent, the problem rests more in the lack of communication with those being most affected by the policy switch.
"The larger issue for me was the lack of parental input in what is essentially a huge policy issue for many of the families," Falk said. "I felt that this decision was made in isolation, affected a huge number of people … and it just creates a major inconvenience for our parents.
"More attention needed to be paid to what the impact would be on the families of the school."