Represesentatives from the Department of Human Services (DHS) will return to Memphis this week to hear provider feedback on the second set of proposed modifications to child-care transportation rules.
Providers at last month's hearings, which saw a capacity crowd, disagreed with many of the proposed changes to transportation guidelines governing child-care centers, family child-care homes, and group child-care homes licensed by DHS.
The original recommendations were a result of Governor Don Sundquist's review panel appointed after the April accident involving Tippy Toes Learning Academy, which killed the van driver and four children and severely injured two other children.
During the first hearing, child-care providers and parents challenged many of the emergency-transportation rules instituted August 21st after the panel's review, even though modifications had been made to the initial recommendations. The rules involved driver's-license requirements and drug testing for all child-care drivers, signage requirements for center vehicles, and seat-belt requirements. Operators called some of rules "excessive" and "knee-jerk" actions taken by the governor and DHS.
As a result, the rules have again been amended. This time, the recommendations include requiring drivers to hold a Tennessee driver's license with an "F" ("for hire") endorsement, a less-stringent requirement than the more-difficult-to-obtain commercial driver's license initially recommended.
Beginning January 1, 2004, the modified rules call for drivers to obtain documentation that they have passed additional written or skills tests and to participate in the annual school-bus driver training offered by the Department of Safety. By January 2005, all transportation vehicles must comply with federal safety standards applicable to large or small school buses.
"That doesn't mean that 15-passenger vans can't be used," said Dana Keeton with DHS. "We're concerned about the structural integrity and center-of-gravity problems that some of the vans might have. But if they meet federal guidelines, they can be used."
Rules for screenings of agency employees will still apply. Beginning January 2003, drivers will be required to annually provide a health statement to DHS verifying their physical and mental ability to transport children. Drug screening will begin March 2003 for new child-care agency employees, and two random drug screenings will be required annually for all employees.
Questions that may arise from these modifications could concern the costs associated with the various testing and class requirements as well as vehicle modifications and whether DHS will offer financial assistance to any of the state's thousands of child-care agencies, including more than 700 in Shelby County. Keeton said DHS has already begun researching ways to absorb the costs associated with the changes. "We don't want people to think that with these modifications, the department has backed off its standards," she said. "We want rigorous guidelines for transporting children safely. That is our main concern."
The Shelby County public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, November 6th, at 6:30 p.m. in the county commission chambers at 160 N. Main Street.