Climbing onto the school bus a little before 3 p.m. after kindergarten classes let out for the day, a little girl with her mask on takes her assigned seat and settles in for the ride. Ninety minutes later, she gets off at a rural stop on Fern Road — a spot that’s only 3 miles away from the school.
Ninety minutes to transport the youngest of students just 3 miles away.
This sampling of a child’s bus ride is difficult to believe but it represents one of the most extreme examples that has resulted from a severe bus driver shortage — nationally, statewide and right here in the Philomath School District.
It’s a frustrating experience for all — students, parents, educators and bus drivers.
Denise Conner, location manager for Mid Columbia Bus Co., the student transportation provider for the Philomath School District, knows there are currently those types of situations on bus routes. She also knows there are no easy answers and feels for the families that the shortage and revised routes have impacted.
“I think everyone in general is on edge and we’ve all gone through a lot in the last two years,” Conner said. “Some of the routes, yes, they are a little longer and they may go down a street that they’ve not gone down before. We have done our very best to try to keep the routes as similar as possible … We’re all just in it together and trying to prioritize getting the kids to school and home as safely as possible.”
Philomath School Superintendent Susan Halliday feels for the students and families.
“It’s hard to put people on routes that are an hour or more long,” Halliday said. “Denise puts them together the best that she can but it is awful, especially with the young kids if they have to ride that long, it’s crazy. Once we can break apart some of those routes again, that’ll be nice.”
Mid Columbia’s Philomath operation has 14 bus driver routes at full staff and currently, only 10 of them are filled. Conner herself often drives a route to fill in.
“Mid Columbia has a great recruiting manager that does a lot of push work for us,” Conner said when asked about the challenge of bringing in new drivers. “I’ve had a ton of applicants and I’ve even hired a ton of people.”
That sounds like a positive statement but problems surface when those hires are not able to make it through Department of Motor Vehicles training, or if they do make it through, they quit after a day or two on the job.
“A week ago, I had seven new hires,” Conner said. “Today, I only have three because half of them didn’t make it through the DMV training or they worked for one day and then left. Those are really hard because when you work one day, I’m thinking, ‘oh yes, we can split up this route, all of the possibilities’ and then you do all of that and then two days later, it’s ‘oh no, we have to go back on everything we just said.’”
Conner said that currently with the combined routes, a typical bus has roughly 60 students registered to ride but only half of them actually do, or, some of them might ride about half of the time.
In some school districts, even staff have stepped in to drive buses but that’s not possible in many cases. In Philomath, for example, Halliday said the district doesn’t have staffers with the appropriate licensure to be able fill in.
The neighboring Corvallis School District is also maneuvering through a bus driver shortage.
“We are working closely with Student Transportation of America to develop alternative solutions, such as combining routes at multiple schools and reducing the number of bus stops along certain routes,” the district said in a release posted on its website. “Many changes, such as combined elementary and high school routes, have already gone into effect.”
Student Transportation of America’s bus dispatch center is located just west of Philomath. Neighboring student transportation providers have to compete with one another to attract drivers, whether it’s Corvallis or Alsea or elsewhere.
During distance learning, the school district and Mid Columbia continued to employ a group of bus drivers for specific assignments.
“We kept them for purposes of limited and personal small groups and things like that so we could have the transportation available,” Halliday said. “So they served us in that capacity last year. It didn’t keep everybody but it kept most people and we were able to continue to provide.”
School bus providers must respond to situations beyond what most would identify as the norm — before- and after-school routes and transportation to and from sporting events. For example, Halliday said the Philomath district has a situation with a homeless family.
Students who are eligible for services under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act have a right to attend the school of residency or the school of origin. In the latter case, that’s the school where the student was last enrolled or where they attended school when permanently housed.
“If I had students in Philomath and found an apartment in Albany with whoever could have me up there, I could still have my kids come to Philomath if I want them to — and they need to be transported,” Halliday said. “When you get into situations like that, it makes it that much more difficult, too.”
The situation has become so dire in some areas of the country that parents, private companies and even the National Guard have been driving students to and from class.
“It’s kind of like, ‘will we end up looking at paying parents?’ I don’t know,” Halliday said. “Right now, we’re not there and hopefully we won’t get there.”
The investment that student transportation companies make in drivers is substantial. The DMV process, for example, can take a month or longer.
“I have a really high success rate with some college kids,” Conner said when asked about the types of applicants. “It’s a really great schedule for them to work before their classes and work after their classes, so I’ve got some younger folks in here. And I’ve got a couple of retired folks and I’ve got a couple of moms — it’s a perfect part-time job for them to be gone for a couple of hours and then return to their families.”
Mid Columbia advertised for bus drivers during the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo in July with a booth in the vendor area.
“I still have people calling from that and we are on Indeed and Craigslist and all of the internet job application search sites,” Conner said.
As for COVID, the district has dodged bullets on that front when it comes to bus transportation.
“We’ve had a couple (of situations), but there’s been nothing that has taken out the whole bus at this point,” Halliday said. “One of those issues was there was nobody sitting within close proximity to the driver, and another that it was the driver’s family that was sitting in close proximity. So it ended up not being an issue there.”
Everybody on the bus is required to mask up and riders have assigned seating.
“It makes it easier if you have to contact trace,” Halliday said about the seating arrangements. “So if someone gets sick that sits in the middle of the bus, you know who’s sitting in that close proximity range.”
Halliday said buses also have cameras, which is another way to identify a particular person, if needed.
“Our nurses are in constant communication with Benton County Health in being able to try to continue to know what is a close contact, when do we have to quarantine, all of those kinds of things,” Halliday added.
Beyond the school bus environment, Halliday said the Philomath School District has avoided any major COVID outbreaks.
“I just continue to count my lucky stars thus far that we haven’t had huge outbreaks that have asked us to close down schools or grade levels or those kinds of things,” she said. “Just isolated stuff and we’re trying to do our best to keep the distance.”
Other shortages are being seen in the district.
“I actually went over and substituted at the high school this morning,” Halliday said. “We’re short substitute teachers — it’s hard to be able to find people to come in.”
Conner was asked to make her pitch to those thinking about applying for a bus driver job.
“Flexible hours — I always tell people that my favorite part of this job is it can always be how much or how little I ever needed it to be,” she said. “So when I really needed a lot of hours, the hours were there for me to have and whenever I really needed to take a step back and spend more time with my family, I could also do that. That was really nice when I was a driver.”
As for the kindergartner who endured the long bus ride to her stop along Fern Road, she is now getting rides from a neighbor who goes into town to pick up her first grader.
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