Even before the sun is fully up Monday morning, 161 bright yellow school buses will be on Sampson County roadways, stopping and starting as their doors swing open to allow some 8,000 bright-eyed Clinton City and Sampson County students to climb aboard. They’ll do it all over again that same afternoon, and they’ll repeat the routine again the next day and the next and the next for some 180 days of the 2014-15 academic year.
Bus drivers in Sampson County will travel some 11,000 miles per week, burning around 7,500 gallons of diesel fuel as they travel the 969 square miles of the county. And they’ll have one goal in mind: keeping those in their charge safe.
All those drivers gathered Thursday for an annual safety meeting that serves as both a welcome back and a gentle reminder of that goal.
During a breakfast at Clinton High School, it looked more like a family reunion than a meeting, as drivers hugged, slapped one another on the back, shared stories of summer fun and talked about the upcoming school year.
“It’s going to be a good one,” one driver said as she picked up a biscuit and joined a group of friends at a nearby table.
“It sure is,” another remarked. “I can’t wait to see all those babies.”
While their jobs are admittedly difficult, most find joy, too, in the roles they all play in the academic process.
“You are the gateway,” county schools superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy told the gathered group as the meeting got under way. “You are the first person these kids, and sometimes the parents, see from our school systems in the morning. How you interact with them often determines the start to their day, the mood they will have for the day.”
Bracy thanked the drivers for the “great job you do every day for our kids,” and he praised them for the commitment they make not just to the job but to the children in their care.
“I am honored and thankful for what you do. Most folks can drive, but it takes a special person to drive a school bus,” he attested.
Herb Sanderson, county schools transportation director, offered his own welcome back, reflecting on a day he walked out to the parking lot and looked at the buses parked outside.
“I thought of all the children we transport every day, all the miles you travel, and I thought ‘what an awesome job, what an awesome task’ it truly is.’”
Sanderson said when he looked at the scope of what bus drivers do each school day, he is overwhelmed. “Really, it’s a totally remarkable feat and a tremendous responsibility getting all those kids to and from school safely each day. And you do a great job, you really do.”
Sanderson said looking over the room filled with drivers he was well aware of their dedication to the job and their commitment to the children and their safety.
“I appreciate what you do every day. We all do,” Sanderson said. “It’s like the saying goes, ‘a day of education begins and ends with transportation.’”
City schools superintendent Stuart Blount echoed Sanderson, applauding the drivers. “We are celebrating 175 of public education and transportation is an integral part of that, you are an integral part,” he said.
And, he said, Monday was fast approaching. “We are excited about Monday. It’s a new beginning, just like it is every year. You will see some familiar faces and some new ones, some who are a joy, some who may be a challenge, but when it is all said and done every single one of those you transport to those buildings every day are the reason for education, the reason we are all here.”
Blount offered two wishes to the drivers. “I pray that you have safe travel for yourselves and for our students and I wish for you no inclement weather unless it’s on a work day or a weekend, and that it’s all gone by Sunday night.”
Then N.C. Highway Patrol Sgt. Bryan Smith took to the podium to first add his thanks to bus drivers for their commitment to safety and to the children and then to go over safety rules.
“You know them, but it never hurts to hear them again and again,” Smith said.
He stressed to the drivers that all school buses must be stopped, flashing red lights and have its mechanical arm fully extended when picking up children, the key, he said, to safety.
But he also acknowledged that even putting all safety practices into place did not always mean accidents wouldn’t happen.
“We can do everything we can to be safe, and even when we do that something can go wrong. Keeping these things in mind, along with your training and good common sense, though, will ensure safety as much as it can be ensured.”
(Editor Sherry Matthews can be reached at 910-249-4612. Follow her on Twitter @sieditor1960; follow the paper @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.)