School bus commutes are too long for many

Kids shouldn’t have a 3-hour daily commute to and from school. But nearly 10 percent of the 18,062 routes traveled by South Carolina school buses in the 2013-14 school year exceeded the maximum of 90 minutes of one-way travel allowed by state law.

It is understandable that bus rides for students living in sparsely populated rural school districts would be longer than the average suburban commute. And state Education Department officials point out that sometimes the longer bus rides are necessary to carry a special-needs student across a county to a school that has the type of classroom or service that student requires.

But the obvious answer to the problem of bus rides that take more than an hour and a half to reach the school because they meander along a lengthy, winding route is: Buy more school buses.

The lack of enough up-to-date buses to transport children to school in a safe and timely manner is a perennial headache for the state. South Carolina is one of the few states that operates its own bus system rather than leaving that duty to individual districts or hiring private companies to transport students, and about half the state’s more than 5,600 buses are more than 15 years old.

And more than 400 of them are older than 25 years.

That is because the Legislature won’t appropriate the money to buy new school buses. As a stopgap measure, South Carolina has purchased old castoff buses from other states, but that has not come close to enabling the state to meet its goal of replacing the bus fleet every 15 years.

The problem of aging, decrepit school buses is a scandal in its own right. But the fact that many South Carolina children are spending more than three hours a day on a school bus makes it even more disgraceful.

Students have to wake up about 5 a.m. to catch a 6:15 a.m. bus. Then, after school, they often don’t get home until after 5 p.m.

Not only are the hours spent on the bus essentially wasted, the long commute also disrupts normal family life, deprives students of sleep and leaves little time for any activities after school other than homework.

A variety of studies have indicated that teens, on average, should get 8 1/2 to 9 1/4 hours of sleep a day. Less sleep than that leads to chronic health problems and poor performance in school.

If kids are rising at 5 a.m. and not arriving home from school until after 5 p.m., it is doubtful they are getting adequate sleep.

A three-hour commute is a significant chunk of the day, and the statistics for the state school buses indicate that in many cases, the commute is longer than that. Children need time for after-school activities, jobs, sports, family dinners and just relaxing, and a schedule that includes three hours on a bus makes that almost impossible.

South Carolina is obligated by the S.C. Supreme Court to ensure that all students across the state have access to a quality education.

Shorter bus rides for children in poor rural communities would be a good place to start.