School districts, bus companies seeing shortage in bus drivers

SPOKANE, Wash. — It’s nearly impossible to plan for everything, and as kids head back to class, schools are doing what they can to keep them COVID free.

East Valley School District Superintendent Kelly Shea says they had to plan the busing situation a little differently this year since the district is doing the hybrid learning model. The district had to create bus routes in a way there would be about 20 students per bus so they can practice social distancing.

“That has caused us to have to change bus stops, change bus times,” he said.

While planning to reopen schools, Shea said he knew at some point, employees and students would have to quarantine if and when they come into contact with the virus.

“We had planned for that, but specifically thinking that six drivers would be quarantined at one time, and having a plan already in place for that, we had not considered that specific scenario,” he told 4 News Now.

That’s exactly what happened, though.

One bus driver in the district tested positive for the virus, then five others had to quarantine. Mix that with drivers who already had some time off, there weren’t enough drivers to pick up kids.

Shea says they brought in five substitute bus drivers to help, but they needed more. When they found out a driver tested positive and that others needed to quarantine, it happened so quickly. He said they reached out to other districts and charters companies to help drive kids.

“When you have substitutes, sometimes, especially substitutes if you’re bringing from outside the district, they may not know the routes. Buses will be delayed, and it’s possible that the bus didn’t show up in a timely manner,” he said.

Shea says the district’s bus mechanics also have CDL’s, so sometimes they fill in, too. However, they are always hiring for substitute bus drivers.

The East Valley School District isn’t the only place in need of drivers, either. Durham School Services says it’s been seeing a shortage as well. It’s in need of 40 more bus drivers to be able to drive kids to and from school. The company serves Spokane Public Schools and a few other outlying districts.

“COVID has impacted the number of drivers that we are getting through the doors and the number of bus drivers that we are keeping just because I think the people are so concerned about being exposed with all the kids on the bus in an enclosed area,” explained Rhonda Mclellan, the general manager of Durham School Services.

She says they are trying to do what they can to keep drivers and students safe by keeping windows open for air circulation, extra PPE on hand and sanitizing the buses.

Spokane Public Schools’ slow phase in of students has actually been beneficial for Durham School Services, Mclellan said. In total, the company has more than 150 routes in a normal year. Right now, they are running 94 routes but started with fewer than 50. The gradual build up of route has made it easy with how many drivers they have, but they are still hiring.

“I feel that as the virus progresses and the school time progresses, we’ll have more people that you know, have more symptoms, we’ll send them home,” she said. “We’ll have a lot more people on standby to be able to go take those routes over.”

Another challenge Mclellan says they’ve run into is scheduling with the Department of Licensing. Because of the pandemic, it’s taken longer for their drivers in training to get their permits to be behind the wheel.

Both Mclellan and Shea say they’re continuing to try to hire so kids can get the education they need and get home safely.

“We just need to make sure we’re working with our partners in the area and helping each other out,” Shea said.

If you’d like more information on what’s necessary to become a bus driver and apply with Durham School Services, click here.

If you’re interested in more information on how to become a substitute bus driver with the East Valley School District, click here.

LIST: Keeping track of COVID-19 in local school districts