HELENA – Icy conditions on roads around the Helena Valley have made things difficult for local school buses.

“This has been an unusual year,” said Tom Cohn, transportation maintenance manager for Helena Public Schools.

The school district has two trucks that lay sand throughout the day on the areas where buses pick up students. Cohn said they have already used almost as much sand as they typically would in an entire winter.

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“Right now, things are so slick, we’re actually sanding our playgrounds so the kids can go out and play,” he said.

Cohn said the district works closely with other local agencies. Lewis and Clark County crews can help them provide sanding services. The district also holds monthly meetings with the county, the city of Helena and the local 911 center.

On days when weather is a concern, district administrators meet at 4 a.m. to plan their strategy for the day. When conditions are especially dangerous, they can cancel some of the outlying bus routes.

First Student, a national company, contracts with the district to provide bus services. Each of their buses is equipped with either automatic tire chains or chains drivers can install.

But Cohn said it can still be difficult for buses to handle steep streets like on the city’s west and south sides and in the South Hills.

“Buses really aren’t meant to be on steep areas with the amount of ice we’ve got,” he said. “So we do have our challenges up there, and buses definitely get stuck in those icy areas.”

Each Helena school bus contains live GPS and video, so administrators are able to tell where they are. Parents can sign up for a messaging service, so they will receive emails or text messages if their child’s bus will arrive late. The district also posts updates on their website and their transportation Facebook page.

“We make sure we’ve got as much communication as we can,” Cohn said.

Cohn asked the public to be patient when buses travel slower than usual.

“It’s not something we’re trying to do to slow down traffic,” he said. “The fact is that, when we’re picking up a number of children that we’re trying to get to schools, we’re going to do our utmost to make sure that they’re safest.”