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District encourages coaches, parents to get licenses to transport students

 - Jefferson County School District 509-J Transportation Supervisor Larry Sandstrom, left, and District Transportation Coordinator Jim Struck want to hire a half dozen or more bus drivers.

It's no secret there is a national bus driver shortage, and Jefferson County School District 509-J is feeling the impacts of it.

"Our biggest challenge is just making sure that we have enough drivers to ensure that students get to and from school safely. That's got to be our number one because we want kids in schools," said 509-J Director of Operations and Safety Simon White. "If we have a driver or two go down, it's going to be a challenge for us."

District Transportation Coordinator Jim Struck would like the district to hire six more permanent drivers, including a trip driver, and some substitutes.

"I started my training last week. That's how desperate we are. We need people," said District Transportation Supervisor Larry Sandstrom.

There are 23 drivers for 27 routes, but Struck said they are making due by having some drivers do more than one route. It also helped to delay the start of Warm Springs K-8 Academy by an hour.

"We've got bus drivers and aides for all of our in-town daily morning and afternoon routes. We are struggling a bit with activities after school," White said.

Trip drivers take students to athletic, band, choir, CTE and FFA events. Often, substitute drivers are needed for trip drivers' daily routes. White said they have just enough drivers right now, so it makes it difficult to fill those extra-duty trips. If a driver calls in sick or takes personal leave, it could mean a canceled trip.

Madras High School Athletic Director Daniel Barendse said they haven't had to cancel any sporting events yet because of a lack of drivers, but it's very fragile.

"Unfortunately, COVID is alive and well. If anything happens with any of our drivers, we're definitely shorthanded," he said.

Barendse said some days MHS needs two buses to transport teams, so they have been proactive and worked with the transportation department to change some athletic schedules, ensuring all daily routes are covered.

"We're not alone at trying to figure out ways of doing that," he said.

White encourages coaches and even parents to get Type 20 or Type 10 licenses so they can transport small teams and student groups to activities. The district offers the required two-hour training and will pay the drivers.

 - The 509-J school district is feeling the same pinch many school districts throughout the nation are feeling: a lack of bus drivers. The district is doing what it can to lure and keep drivers but is also urging coaches and teachers to get commercial licenses.
In late August, the district also put on a bus driving event to encourage applicants, but White said it was not very well attended. However, it did help get the word out that bus drivers are needed.

"It's a tough one to fill right now. It's a tough one across not only the state of Oregon but the nation," White said.

A commercial driver license is required to drive a school bus as well as 15 to 24 hours of training. Struck said local bus drivers work three to seven hours a day, depending on the length and number of routes. Drivers who work at least four hours a day qualify for district benefits, and wages start at $18.63 an hour.

Sandstrom said bus route drivers work mornings and afternoons, but some opt to do maintenance work in between routes.

"We try to do everything we can with the people that want the hours," he said.

Bus drivers are included in the state's new mandate that school employees get vaccinated by Oct. 18. All adults and children must wear masks while on buses.

White estimates that 60% of 509-J students rely on district transportation, and he says bus drivers are vitally important.

"They're the first face that the vast majority of our kids see, and they're the last face that they see when they go home, and that's so important for our kids," he said.

White gives kudos to the drivers who transported kids during summer school and then rolled right into the current school year.

"It really is more than a job for the vast majority of our drivers," Struck added. "They really do care about their kids, and it's such a great opportunity to be a positive influence on a young child's life."

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