Howard County completed 85 sidewalk and crossing projects over the summer to get ready for the school year. Credit: Howard County Government

The new school year will begin in Howard County next week with improved sidewalks to accommodate more walkers, later school start times for high-schoolers and a full roster of bus drivers.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced Thursday that multiple transportation projects to enhance walkability have been completed in time for the start of the new school year.

“Through our collective efforts this summer, from completing more than 85 infrastructure improvements, to hiring more crossing guards, we are ensuring that more people can safely connect to neighborhoods, parks, schools, and other destinations throughout our county,” Ball said.

The work included the revitalization of 66 crosswalks, as well as 20 projects related to sidewalks, ramps and signs.

Ball said his administration has been working to support families, and the school system itself, so that students of all ages and abilities have the best possible start to the school year possible.

“I know the excitement and anxiety that many parents and educators may feel as the dawn of a new school year is upon us,” Ball said.

The Howard County Public School System serves over 57,000 students and their families through 78 schools. According to the system’s director of communications and engagement, Brian Bassett, around 14,000 of those students walk to school.

Standardized walking distances are based on the age of the student, he said. Distances have been adjusted this year, to better align with state school district trends. And  some other significant changes for the new school year are happening too.

Start times have been changed for one thing.

“No schools will start before 8 o’clock this year,” Bassett said. “For high schools, that’s about a 35-minute change.”

And it looks like the county is finally pulling out its long-term dip in bus drivers that it has seen for years. Double-backs, the practice of having a route bus driver conduct a second pick-up and drop-off journey after completing their first route, is not expected during the 2023-24 school year.

Part of the reason is that the new start times won’t allow for it. But the driver shortage in Howard County also appears to be easing.

“Right now we’re anticipating that all routes will be covered on the first day of school,” Bassett said. “That’s wonderful. Since the pandemic we’ve been 85 to 95 drivers short. No double-backs this year.”

The Howard County School System also contracts with a van transport service that offers it additional flexibility and capacity to meet students’ transportation needs. Bassett indicated that the school system has been doing some intense messaging with students and their families to help prepare the way for the new school year.

He encouraged those with questions or issues to reach out to the school system’s website or offices, or to their child’s school’s administrator.

 “We’ve been communicating weekly with families,” he said. “A lot of information has gone out in email and other methods. Schools are sending a lot of information. We’ve been encouraging them (parents) that if challenges arise, or if needs change, to either contact our office of transportation for the school system, or contact the administration in their child’s school to help work through any of those issues that could arise.”

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