By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — On Henry Marcinuk’s first day of kindergarten, he was mostly excited, but a little scared. His mom, Katie, had prepared him for school, but neither of them were completely ready for the moment he stepped onto the bus and began to climb the stairs. Henry turned around and looked at his mom, tears beginning to well in his brown eyes.
Then his bus driver stepped in, cheerfully welcoming one of many nervous kindergartners onto the yellow chariot waiting to take Henry to Craig Elementary School. The nervous boy was transformed into an excited new student again.
Henry is 8 years old now, and a veteran school bus rider. On Aug. 21, he accompanied his sister, 6-year-old Lila, on her first bus ride before kindergarten begins. At Niskayuna elementary schools, students and their parents are invited to take a summer bus ride that begins with a safety presentation. Still accompanied by their parents, the kids climb into the bus and show the driver which houses are theirs. It helps remove a fear of the unknown that can come with riding the school bus, both for kids and the grownups who inevitably worry about their safety and happiness.
Thea Mansfield is the dispatcher and head trainer for First Student, the district’s transportation provider. Mansfield, who has worked in transportation for 20 years, said separation anxiety is always the toughest part of the first day of school.
“In a lot of cases the kids aren’t used to being away from mom and dad,” she said.
She suggested that parents remind kids that their friends will all be on the bus, too. Pairing a child with a familiar person such as a neighbor, who will also ride the bus, is another comforting strategy.
During the safety session before the bus ride, Mansfield responded to other concerns from parents while their kids watched a safety video in a different part of the classroom. She reminded everyone to communicate with bus drivers, even encouraging them to walk up to the bus window and exchange cellphone numbers.
Recently, it was decided that Niskayuna bus drivers can keep their bus routes for long periods of time, which Mansfield said is as helpful for parents’ state of mind as it is for the kids.
“Drivers get to stay on the same run year after year, so they get to watch the kids grow up,” she said.
Mac McKiernan has been driving Niskayuna school buses for just a year now, but he already has a solid plan for calming nervous new riders.
“It’s all up to the driver to get them in,” he said. Kids are often skittish for the first few days. McKiernan jokes with them and helps them find seats near friendly older kids.
“I talk to them like you’d want to be spoken to,” he said. “Treat them like your own.”
Sometimes, it seemed like the parents needed to be comforted more than their 5- and 6-year-olds. Twins Kyla and Anthony Larsen rode the bus with their mom, Michelle.
“It’s totally scary,” Michelle Larsen said. “I’m the one tearing up listening to them.”
But both future kindergarteners bravely shook their heads when asked if they were nervous about the first day. Anthony said he couldn’t wait to go to music and art classes, and Kyla got a sparkle in her eye over the gym at Craig. One thing is for certain: Whatever awaits the kindergarteners after the first bell rings, they’re already well-equipped for the trip there.
- Keep a 15-foot “danger zone” around the bus. Kids should wait a safe distance away from the bus and avoid standing near the vehicle before boarding or after exiting.
- Dress children in brightly colored clothing and, if possible, attach reflectors to their school gear. It can be hard for bus drivers to see during late autumn and winter, when mornings and afternoons are dark.
- Avoid long drawstrings on sweat shirts, backpacks, mittens and other clothing. Strings can get caught on the bus doors, which can cause injury.
- Do not allow students to eat or drink on the bus. This protects them from choking and protects children around them who might have food allergies.
- Students who must cross the street in front of the bus should wait for the driver’s signal before crossing.