After listening to parents' concerns after four school buses were stranded for about two hours at the top of the suddenly icy Route 902 hill from Summit Hill to Lansford on Nov. 27, Panther Valley School District has developed a policy to keep families informed.
One parent, Amy Craig, Summit Hill, spoke to the school board Thursday, saying the district needed to improve the way it handles unexpected transportation delays.
Craig referred to the morning of Nov. 27, when freezing rain iced over Route 902 between Summit Hill and Lansford, forcing the school buses to a standstill.
"Not a single one of us knew that our children were on those buses for two-plus hours. We had to find out through social media and texting," Craig said. Some of the children were as young as 5 years old, she said.
She said she put her children on the bus at 8:25 a.m., and took them off the bus at 10:27 a.m.
Craig said she was told by staff at the elementary school that it was safer for her children to stay on the bus. However, she said, the buses were lined up about 2.5 feet from a guardrail at a steep embankment.
"That was not a very safe spot for them to be," she said.
"Should there have been a medical emergency or fire emergency for those children to need to vacate that bus, it would have been to either jump off the back of the bus, or to vacate on the side of the mountain," Craig said.
She said she almost slipped trying to get her children off the bus.
"If I could not calmly try to get my children off that bus, what if there had been an emergency?" she said.
She worried that if another vehicle had hit the bus, it could have gone through the guardrail and over the embankment.
Craig also said there were problems getting through to the school district.
School director David Hiles, who lives in Summit Hill, said the hill can become icy suddenly.
School Superintendent Rose Mary Porembo said the buses had already begun to descend the hill when the surface turned icy. The bus drivers alerted the school district's dispatcher that they were stopping. At 8:38 a.m., Porembo called the state Department of Transportation, twice. A PennDOT representative said the man who handles that hill had to get more materials and was on his way there. Traffic was moving again by about 10:10 a.m.
Porembo said she did not issue an alert to parents because "I felt my buses were safe, the children were safe, and I thought that if I put an alert out, I would have possibly over 150 parents" converging on the site, hampering PennDOT trucks and creating an unsafe situation.
"That would have been a disaster if parents would have been showing up there to get their kids. They would have been parking all the way up at my place or even farther, and then walking. That would have been a dangerous situation," Hiles said.
Further, cards identifying emergency contacts and who is authorized to take each child are not on the buses, Porembo said.
She agreed with Craig there should be more feedback to parents concerning the situation.
Further, she said, PennDOT has agreed to dedicate a truck to Route 902 from Bugzie's Mountain, through Summit Hill and down to Lansford.
By early this week, Porembo and Transportation Manager Ken Marx had drawn up the written policy that guides bus drivers on what to do in the event of sudden hazardous road conditions.
According to the policy:
If hazardous road conditions exist and it is safer to park the bus, do so. Park the bus in a safe area without restricting traffic. Turn on hazard lights. Leave the bus running and keep the bus heated.
Inform the bus garage and the school district of the situation. The school district will inform individual schools. The bus garage and school district will alert PennDOT, the corresponding borough and police.
Every 15 minutes of being parked, notify the school district with an update.
After 15 minutes of being parked, the school district will alert the parents. The alert will inform the parents that their children are safe, and ask them to not pick up their children because of the potential safety concerns.
If parents do arrive to pick up students, allow them to leave, if it is safe to do so.
Parents must sign a form, however.