Northern Michigan schools struggle against bus driver shortage | News

TRAVERSE CITY – Northern Michigan school administrations are working hard to avoid bus cancellations as the nationwide driver shortage worsens.

A number of school administrations across Michigan have faced difficult decisions about triage bus routes as they struggled to hire and keep enough drivers to get students to schools. Officials from Traverse City Area public schools looked for several solutions to the problem during the first month of the new school year, including signing rewards and a $ 5 an hour raise for new applicants.

TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner said the district needs 12 to 15 more drivers to support each route.

“We’re dangerously low,” said VanWagoner.

To keep student transportation services up and running across the district, TCAPS has tapped other school staff, including mechanics and maintenance personnel, to fill in the gaps. The district has also expanded some routes, resulting in overcrowded buses and long, winding routes

“At this point, we’ve just got to a point where we just can’t get them any further down without kids sitting on a bus for two or more hours,” said VanWagoner.

Due to the changed bus routes, Eliana Hermel, a newcomer to Central High School, was late for her first day of school. She said her morning bus ride had taken her a long way to go to school.

“It only somehow had a negative impact on me because the first day of school was a good experience for me, except for the beginning and the end,” said Hermel. “This is not a good start to the first day of school.”

Hermel stopped taking the bus after the first few days of school and instead opted for a ride from friends. She said the long and overcrowded bus rides were “utterly miserable” and scared her.

Jennifer Reinhart, whose daughter is attending West Senior High School, said she was also concerned about safety on the crowded buses – especially driver safety and the risk of the spread of COVID-19. Many students on her daughter’s bus have had to double or triple their seats, she said.

VanWagoner is in the process of being certified to drive the buses itself in order to be able to help in emergencies, and Christine Thomas-Hill, Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations, has already taken over the afternoon bus driving shifts.

If the list of drivers continues to shrink, some TCAPS bus routes will be suspended or canceled, which “would most likely begin with high school transportation,” VanWagoner said.

Northwest Education Services is also grappling with a shortage of bus drivers as six of its lines have been shut down, deputy superintendent Carol Greilick said.

67 North Ed students are affected by the changes.

North Ed has given fuel cards to parents who need to drive their children to school and sent teachers to pick up students on school buses.

“In terms of problem solving and creativity, nothing is off the table,” said Greilick.

Kingsley Area Schools Superintendent Keith Smith said the driver shortage has persisted for years. His district has offered signing bonuses of up to $ 1,500, agency fees, and even paid training as an incentive to attract more drivers.

“It feels like it’s been a constant recruitment and hiring of bus drivers for the past three years or so,” said Smith. “We were very lucky that we were able to fill most of the routes.”

Smith said some Kinglsey teachers run buses in the mornings and afternoons to help the school district and make extra income.

Smith said that bus driving “is just a very difficult job to be recruited for”.

Driving buses full of elementary, middle or high school students is a difficult task, and the job itself requires drivers to work odd hours and go through a lengthy hiring and training process in order to get the right certifications.

“There are simply no bus drivers. We have to find out how we can make it attractive, how we can ensure a good training and accelerate this training and get people into the field, ”said Greilick. “That’s our priority right now.”

VanWagoner said the shortage was exacerbated by the number of recent retirements in the trucking industry and fears related to COVID-19.

The shortage isn’t unique to northern Michigan, either. Many school districts across the state and even across the country have had to grapple with the driver shortage and respond with monetary incentives, as well as finding unique solutions that still keep students on their way to school.

On Tuesday, Newaygo County Schools suspended all bus routes until the weekend due to a lack of bus drivers. The change did not cause a dramatic drop in visitor numbers, Superintendent Jeff Wright said.

“We had a really big turnout today,” said Wright. “Not all of them, but we had a good turnout in school.”

Wright attributes attendance numbers to the many parents in the district who have worked together on social media to carpool students to schools.

“I’m very impressed and proud of the Newaygo community and the way they have rallied around our students to get them to school,” said Wright.

Despite the difficulties of hiring new bus drivers and getting students to school, TCAPS is not considering a return to virtual learning, according to VanWagoner.

“This year there is no mechanism for state aid to just go virtual like we did a year ago,” said VanWagoner. “That was all taken out of the State Aid Act when it was passed this summer. In these cases there is no mechanism for us to do this and so we are obliged to have a school [for] 180 days and 1,090 hours of personal learning. “

Smith and Greilick also do not want to switch to online learning in the foreseeable future.

“The question is not whether or not children can be in school; it takes them to school, ”said Greilick. “Our absolute last choice would be virtual learning.”

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