Students attending school in Jacksonville will have more transportation options starting Tuesday, thanks to a new partnership between the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, the city and Duval County Public Schools.
Local leaders went into detail about the My School Ride 2 pilot program — which will provide free bus rides to public, charter and private school students in Jacksonville middle and high schools — at a Monday morning press conference.
“I quickly realized there was a great need,” said City Council Vice President Terrance Freeman, who is credited with pushing the program concept. “When I think of the value of a program like this, I think of its purpose – these kids get driven to school, to work.”
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National shortages have led to fewer school bus routes and significant delays
Shortages of bus drivers — taking place across the country — have been raging in Duval schools since the start of the school year. Reported issues include late pickups, missed stops, and cramped buses due to consolidated routes.
Nearby school districts, including schools in Clay County, have reported similar driver shortages.
School officials say that while the shortages are nothing new, they have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. School bus driver positions are usually seasonal and part-time and come with low pay compared to industries with similar qualifications.
Currently, the district spends $65 million on transportation. These costs will not be affected by the new JTA student passes, Greene said.
This is because JTA buses serve as an additional transportation option – they do not replace traditional yellow buses.
“It is very important to know that we are not changing our current services,” Superintendent Diana Greene said at the press conference. “We have over 900 buses serving hundreds of bus routes. This allows another option, especially for jobs and extracurricular activities.”
How does the My Ride 2 School program work?
Through the pilot program, middle and high school students in Jacksonville can ride any JTA or First Coast Flyer bus for free on school days between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. Students must present a valid school ID card as a pass.
And while masks aren’t required on school campuses under recent state law, all bus riders are required to wear a mask due to a federal requirement in effect through at least March.
Officials say the benefit of all-day access is that students can use their free pass to commute to work or home after an extracurricular activity.
The free rides also extend to students who participate in JTA’s Connection Plus discounted transportation service, which serves approximately 50 students with disabilities at 23 schools.
Who pays the bill?
According to JTA General Manager Nat Ford, since bus routes and frequency do not change, the program incurs minimal expense.
“We do not add additional services, [but] using extra capacity,” Ford said.
Currently, 34 of JTA’s 36 available bus routes are positioned right next to existing public, charter, and private schools. For example, Route 10 will take students within a few feet of Fletcher High School and Route 1 will place students at Andrew Jackson High School.
“We’re making sure parents have another option,” Ford said.
What about security?
For safety-conscious parents, “students riding JTA are nothing new,” Ford said.
Until now, JTA offered discounted bus fares for young drivers. JTA spokesman David Cawton said about 1% of JTA’s total ridership is represented by young people and 7% represents discounted bus passes, which include passes. pass for students, low income and seniors.
Last year, JTA presented a similar free bus ride program for local college students.
All JTA buses are equipped with audio and visual technology, trained staff and, by the end of the month, ultraviolet filtration systems, Ford said.
What happens next?
As the pilot program is used by students, JTA will use data and community feedback to assess what is working well and what needs need to be met. Ford said an expansion of bus routes to reach into neighborhoods isn’t out of the question.
“Yes [success] means an expansion of routes and services, so we would love to do that,” he said. “We are really excited about the opportunity to introduce these young riders into our system.