Douglas County students returned to school Wednesday, and there were more than 3,000 new students in the county's 20 elementary, eight middle and five high schools, according to school system officials.
The school system reported issues with buses experiencing delays picking up students as a result of a new system for picking up students. There were no other major problems as of late in the school day Wednesday, according to Portia Lake, spokesperson for the Douglas County School System.
“The main priority of the first day of school is simple," Douglas County Schools Superintendent Trent North said. "We want to get our students to school on time ready to learn and to later return home safely. Like most school systems, we start midweek to allow ourselves ample time and opportunities to work out any challenges. While I am excited that most of our students made it to school safely, there are portions of today’s school experience that did not meet my expectations. We are quickly working with the transportation department to address those issues."
North added: “Today we successfully transported more than 23,000 students to school safely. We overcame many transportation challenges today and hope to resolve the remaining ones as quickly as possible. Last year we had a shortage of bus drivers. This year we have a surplus of 40 bus drivers dedicated to navigating our students to school. Using this new technology program to maximize our transportation efficiency has already yielded more efficient drop-off and pick up times."
The bus delays Wednesday came after new Transportation Director E.W. Tolbert implemented a number of bus route changes, Lake said.
"These changes were designed to maximize bus efficiency and more importantly, get students to school on time," Lake said. "The changes most parents are upset about is the elimination of bus stops at single homes. Bus stops will now be at designated central bus stops or corners."
Lake added: "Parents are (understandably) angry that their students now have to walk to the bus stop after having being picked up for years in front of their home. Parents are most angry that these changes were announced and posted at their school open houses Thursday and Monday. Many parents did not go or were unable to attend and missed getting the information. Superintendent (Trent) North is working with transportation to review all bus routes with the Transportation Department. I spent the morning working alongside the Transportation Department at the Bus Complex. Their phones are ringing off the hook, but they are working nonstop to make necessary changes and adjustments to bus routes."
The school system addressed parents Wednesday in a Facebook post, saying that its Transportation Department worked to safely transport over 23,000 students to school, but said that some routes "experienced delays this morning and may experience afternoon delays. We apologize for these unfortunate occurrences. We are addressing all of these challenges and are utilizing parent input and the latest technology to ensure that each student's journey to and from school is a safe one."
The Facebook post notes that, "This year, there have been some changes designed to streamline our routes as we strive to pick up our students and deliver them to school safely. Many of the changes include moving our student bus pickup locations to corner or centralized bus stops. Centralized pickup location changes decrease route times and eliminate late student arrivals and increase class instructional times. We believe this new system, when fully implemented, will benefit parents, students and the district as a whole."
The school system has added 65 new buses this school year, hired 10 new bus drivers and had several drivers on standby Wednesday, according to the Facebook post.
Eastside Elementary School opened its doors for the 2018-2019 school year with high school football players from Douglas County High School, cheerleaders from Lithia Springs High School and the brass section from the Lithia Springs High School Marching Band cheering and giving high fives as elementary students got off the bus.
"We wanted to start the school year off right," said Eastside Principal Timothy Jenkins, who explained that the school has reached a 50-year milestone that will be celebrated later this year.
It was not just students who were welcomed into to the classroom for the school year.
So far, Douglas County has brought 274 new teachers into the fold this year, along with 39 paraprofessionals, according to Douglas County Schools Director of Human Resources Jill DePriest.
Elementary schools in Douglas County released students at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday and planned to do so again Thurday and Friday.
The early release allows bus drivers extra time to set their routes for younger students riding a school bus for the first time.
On Monday, Aug. 13, elementary students will be dismissed at the regular time of 2:45 p.m.
Renee Davis, assistant superintendent of student services, said it is too soon to tell anything in regards to total student enrollment this year, but the registration office at the Annex West (old Bill Arp Elementary) on Highway 5 has been "slammed."
Davis said that 3,151 new students have registered for the new school year — 262 of them registering Tuesday and on Wendesday morning.
Several schools opened Wednesday with new principals.
Three of the county's five high schools have new principals this year. Tekmekia Gilchrist moved up from an assistant principal position to principal at New Manchester High School this year, while previous NMHS Principal Marco Holland is now principal at Mt. Carmel Elementary School. Nicole Watson is the new principal at Chapel Hill High School, and Albert Lindsey is the new principal at Lithia Springs High School.
Other new principals include:
• Donita Cullen at Stewart Middle School
• Tiffany Boyle at Mason Creek Middle School
• Karna Kelly at North Douglas Elementary School
• Minda Texler at Holly Springs Elementary School
• Jessica Ainsworth at Chapel Hill Elementary School
• Alesia Stanley at Bill Arp Elementary School
• Keith Racine at New Manchester Elementary School.
For more information about the Douglas County School System, visit their new website at dcssga.org.
Sentinel editor Ron Daniel contributed to this report.