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Pamplin Media Group special report: Districts large and small struggle to keep buses running.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Nationwide, and in communities such as Wilsonville (pictured), a lack of school bus drivers during the pandemic has proven challenging.Parents, educators and lawmakers are struggling to come to terms with in-class teaching during a pandemic. But for many Oregon schools, the first question is: How to get students there in the first place.

Districts are scrambling to hire bus drivers. PMG Special Report

"This school bus driver shortage is a nationwide issue," said Brian Shuldberg, regional vice president for Mid-Columbia Bus Co., which provides K-12 school transportation for Marion County districts including Gervais, Cascade and North Santiam. "Massachusetts activated their national guard because they were so short of school bus drivers. Thankfully we haven't had to go that far in Oregon, but it is impacting every district in significant ways."

The pay isn't bad: anywhere from $16.50 to $23 per hour. But Shuldberg attributed the dearth in drivers to the job's demographic: Usually retired or semi-retired people who also tend to be more susceptible to medical complications if they contract COVID-19.

"In total, we typically have 580 drivers around the state of Oregon," he said. "We are about 10- to 12-% short of what we need." PMG FILE PHOTO - Several communities in the Willamette Valley, including Woodburn, Gervais (pictured) and St. Paul, are struggling with the shortage of bus drivers. Only Mount Angel seems to have dodged the problem so far.

According to National Public Radio, a survey in September found that half of student-transportation coordinators nationwide described their school bus driver shortages as either "severe" or "desperate." In Chicago, 70 bus drivers, or about 10% of the workforce, abruptly quit over the district's new COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to the NPR article, and in Pittsburgh, the public schools notified families that they were short almost 650 bus seats for the first day of school.

"Recently St. Paul took a drastic step by ceasing all district transportation for students who reside within the city limits, something to my knowledge the district has never had to do." — Superintendent Joe Wehrli

In Oregon, the problem is hitting the largest and smallest districts alike.

Portland Public Schools is looking to a variety of solutions: From contracting with van and taxi companies, to helping parents coordinate carpool groups, to paying families whose bus routes were cut due to the shortage.PMG FILE PHOTO - A school bus waits in front of a Southeast Portland elementary school in 2021. Portland Public Schools kicked off the 2021-22 school year facing a shortage of bus drivers.

The state's largest district has cut its "big bus routes" from 140 to 101 and has leaned more heavily on using smaller vehicles through outside providers.

The district said its transportation partner, First Student, also is offering hiring bonuses ranging from $2,500 to $6,500 to new drivers.

PPS staff have acknowledged some bus routes have been canceled with little notice. "As we explore every option, bus routes will continue to be temporarily delayed or canceled, with about 10 to 15 bus routes, on average, not running each day," according to a joint message from Dan Jung, chief operating officer for PPS, and Teri Brady, the district's director of transportation.

"Yes, we, too, have a shortage," said Gervais Superintendent Dandy Stevens, whose small district is in Marion County. "We adjusted our start and end times at the middle and high schools because of the shortage."

It's the same in nearby St. Paul. "We have a continuous posting for openings in our district for drivers," Superintendent Joe Wehrli said. "Recently St. Paul took a drastic step by ceasing all district transportation for students who reside within the city limits, something to my knowledge the district has never had to do."

Wehrli said the problem goes beyond getting students to and from school. "It is our hope that we can resolve this issue soon, as it also impacts our athletics and activities transportation, and we have had to use outside entities to provide some of this service."PMG PHOTO: HOLLY SCHOLZ - Jefferson County School District Transportation Supervisor Larry Sandstrom, left, and District Transportation Coordinator Jim Struck want to hire a half dozen or more bus drivers for schools in and around Madras.

The problem has hit Madras, in Central Oregon, the same way.

"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 (priority) because we want kids in schools," said Simon White, Jeffeson County School District director of operations and safety. "If we have a driver or two go down, it's going to be a challenge for us."

Larry Sandstrom, Jefferson County School District's transportation supervisor, said it's an all-hands-on-deck situation. "I started my training last week. That's how desperate we are. We need people." PMG PHOTO: ANNE ENDICOTT - Gresham-Barlow School District said face coverings were required for passengers and drivers, including school buses, as part of the district's fall reopening guidelines. Complications from the pandemic likely have contributed to the nationwide shortage of bus drivers.

His district has 23 drivers for 27 routes, but District Transportation Coordinator Jim Struck said they are making due by having some drivers do more than one route. It also helped to delay the start of one school's day: The schedule for Warm Springs K-8 Academy has been pushed back by an hour.

At least one Oregon school district is bucking the national trend. "We are very fortunate in Mount Angel that we currently are meeting transportation needs," Mount Angel School District Superintendent Rachel Stucky said. "So far we're beating the trend that so many districts are facing."

PMG reporters Justin Much, Holly Scholz and Courtney Vaughn contributed to this article.

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