Bus stop: Pandemic puts the squeeze on schools as transportation is fleeting
For many families with working parents and/or without reliable transportation of their own, school buses are a vital resource for getting their students to school. What happens when there aren't enough bus drivers to handle every route?
At Oregon Trail School District, district administrators have been struggling with this question since before the school year began. Even before students graced the halls of Sandy, Boring and Welches schools this September, the district's contracted bus service — Student Transportation of America — lost both its main dispatcher and senior manager.
"Last year, it wasn't as much of an issue because ridership was already down," said Tim Belanger, Oregon Trail School District director of transportation. "It really wasn't a tell for us the magnitude of the issues."
Some drivers last year, because of a dip in demand, were laid off and sought employment elsewhere, and Belanger said, "a significant number of them didn't come back."
"This year, (STA) has had a lot of applicants, but not a lot of qualified applicants," Belanger said. Many who apply apparently don't already have a CDL license or they don't pass the extensive background test into their driving records or criminal history. Those who do check all of the background boxes but don't have a CDL license, must complete a process that can take multiple weeks.
The district is being served by a fleet of about 14 buses, instead of the usual, pre-COVID 25. The shortage in drivers is so severe that dispatchers, trainers and managers alike at STA are also occasionally hitting the streets behind the wheel of a school bus and multiple routes have been combined.
So far, the district hasn't changed bell schedules at schools to accommodate these now longer bus routes, but Belanger is hoping the shortage is a "transient issue."
"For the first time in my experience, we have no substitutes. We have no reserves," Belanger said. "It's been a significant challenge."
"We are running at just half the bus drivers we normally have," said driver Charles Dunlap, who's driven school buses for OTSD for nine years."We had one driver, just this week, quit because of all of the mandates. It puts us all under tremendous stress."
Dunlap himself said he's been under so much stress from the shortage, from concerns about job stability and from the ongoing onslaught of added precautions because of the pandemic, that he recently was diagnosed with an ulcer.
Dunlap is one of a handful of drivers who previously spoke out about STA not compensating drivers well enough in 2017, and he says that that issue has only recently really begun to be addressed.
"STA has actually finally stepped up and tried to pay better wages," Dunlap explained. However, Dunlap believes that the compensation that is offered is still not enough for people to take on the schedule and demands of the job.
"It comes down to the compensation and the schedule and the benefits," Dunlap explained. "We want to be compensated fairly and a lot of the time we can't get what's fair.
"People think we're just driving a bus, but it's not that simple. If we make a mistake, it impacts more than us. We have young lives in our care. I keep doing the job because I love it. I enjoy waking up every day knowing I get to interact with these kids. It brings joy to me, but at the same time, my company makes it really hard to want to come in."
According to the district administration and Dunlap, Oregon Department of Education has made getting students to school a higher priority than maintaining the recommended distance between students riding the buses.
"We don't want to lose our jobs, so we're bending over backward," Dunlap said. The largest buses that STA runs, he said, seat about 85 kids and the driver, and their buses are seating three children per seat and about 84 per bus.
"You keep the distancing to the best you can," Belanger said. "But, ODE, recognizes that buses are a transient experience and important for getting kids to school."
Other accommodations made around buses are made school by school and include how those administrators and teachers handle bus-related tardiness.
"There's a lot of patience and flexibility," said district Communications Director Julia Monteith.
Belanger added that the bus driver shortage at this time was not a "big district, little district issue," it's actually a national problem.
But, Belanger said: "We have an obligation to provide transportation," so the district and STA continue to work together to try and make sure kids get to school."We're trying to provide the service that we can."
Working toward solutions in Estacada
In Estacada, the school district's board of directors recently approved a sign-on bonus for new drivers, as well as a new monthly stipend for current drivers.
During the Sept. 9 meeting, directors approved a memorandum of understanding between the district and the Oregon School Employees Association, the employee union for bus drivers and other classified employees. Per the agreement, a $3,500 sign-on bonus for drivers will be implemented. The funds will be distributed in three increments: once a commercial drivers license is obtained, on the year anniversary date of hiring and 18 months from the hiring date.
For the 2021-22 fiscal year, a $200 per month temporary market adjustment stipend for all newly hired and current school bus drivers will be implemented.
"We are already at stretch capacity with our current bus driver fleet," Estacada School District Superintendent Ryan Carpenter said in September, declaring the situation an emergency. "Across the United States of America, CDL drivers are at an all time low. The demands for a CDL driver is very competitive, because of the CDL drivers who do not already have a job, there are few of those people, let alone those working a split shift to drive a yellow bus with 80 kids at their back to and from school in the morning and the afternoon."
Carpenter praised the current employees of the district's transportation team.
"We have a very faithful, committed and devoted transportation team, who are doing everything they can to make sure we're picking up and dropping off students to and from school on time," he said.
Per the agreement, a new position will be added for instances when CDL drivers are unavailable. The type 10 driver will be on-call as needed to drive ten or six passenger vans. If the district is unable to hire or retain enough drivers to transport students, it will temporarily contract with an outside agency until those positions within the district are able to be filled.
East County seeks drivers
East County school districts are not exempt from the driver shortage. Reynolds, Centennial and Corbett have all had a difficult time finding people to fill vacant positions.
Corbett School District Superintendent Dan Wold is trying to find two drivers for the district's fleet.
"We have been one driver short since the end of last year,"Wold said. "Now we are two drivers short, which doesn't sound like a lot of drivers compared to a Portland public, but out of 11 that we have, it is a big deal.
Wold said that the shortage has affected the district abilities to transport students who live outside of the district boundaries. Corbett is unique in that it has a lottery for families who want to attend the smaller district, but live outside the district's boundaries.
"The law requires that we give (transportation) priority to students in our district,"Wold said. "So, for the last two lotteries we haven't been able to add these out of district students to our transportation routes."
Despite being the district's highest paying classified job and publicizing the openings since July, Corbett has been struggling to find new drivers.
"Being a smaller district and somewhat remote, makes it harder to attract people compared to some larger and more urban districts in the area,"Wold said.
Wold's explanation might be true in Corbett's case, however larger districts like Reynolds are not immune to the labor shortage.
Steve Padilla, Reynolds School District's assistant director of public relations & partnerships, has noticed how the driver shortage has affected his district's transportation department.
"Currently, we need 14 bus drivers," Padilla said. "We are doing different recruiting efforts from social media, word of mouth, we are trying to do as much as we can."
The district's efforts have not been enough to entice the drivers they need. Reynolds offers full benefits for the position and its on-site training means potential drivers don't need to go somewhere else to get licensed.
Like everyone else, Padilla has a few ideas why there has been a decrease in interest in driving.
"This is a great position for a person who is retired, but when the pandemic came, the idea of being in a bus with a lot of kids, that risk might deter them," Padilla said. "Then just the (labor) shortage in general, and people are being a little more picky these days. It isn't not a one size fits all, it is a combination of a lot of different factors."
While Reynolds hasn't had to cut any routes, Padilla said that it has put more work on the drivers it does have, including asking them to take on more routes.
"Our drivers have been great because they want to help out the community and these kids, but (the extra work) puts more stress on them," Padilla said.
Centennial School District Chief Communications Officer Kassie Swenson has been working to spread the word of her district's bus driver opening. For Centennial, the issue is having enough backup drivers. These drivers cover routes when the district's main drivers call out. The district is down to 4 of these cover-trip drivers and like Reynolds, is putting a strain on other limited transportation staff.
"We essentially have to pull mechanics and other transportation staff, who have bus driving qualifications, to fill in for bus drivers if there aren't enough cover-trip drivers," Swenson said.
Swenson has been pushing out the district's job openings through various mediums including holding a virtual job fair."(Bus drivers) are one of the first of our staff to great students and the last people they see, and they play such an essential role," she said.
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