As the challenge of finding school bus drivers persists, one student transporter in the Phoenix area noted driver fatigue is also an issue following extended summer school.
Eric Kissel, the director of transportation for Laveen Elementary School District #59, said that routes are back to the same number as last year, but he’s down 200 to 300 riders. The 2020-2021 school year was extended by a month ending in late June, but the new school year started as normal on Aug. 2, giving drivers a shorter summer break than usual.
He explained that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey chose to use the federal American Rescue Plan funds to extend the school year, so students could catch up on work that was missed during the pandemic school closures.
Normally, Kissel explained, the district would only transport about 400 students for summer school. But with exponentially more kids enrolled this past year, he had to run a full three-tier system. “And, you know, in order to handle it, most of our drivers worked an entire extra month,” he noted.
Meanwhile, he said neighboring districts chose to offer year-round school for the next two years to address pandemic learning loss. However, in Laveen, he anticipates an extended school year again for this year.
He noted the district administration may choose to use the federal funds to offset some of the transportation costs needed to make summer school happen, but he doesn’t see a that happening as of now. However, his biggest concern is driver fatigue.
“I’m on my 19th year now [in transportation], and one thing you see as the school year gets started back up is usually right around winter break, November and December, you start seeing your attendance falling really bad,” Kissel commented on staffing trends. “You start having a lot of absences … [and] long-term illness. My biggest fear with extending the school year and working to the extent that we did is that I anticipate burnout or getting into the same old routine. I thought we would see that a little earlier and I’m starting to feel like we are. … [P]eople out for three to five days — three to 10 days — for whatever. You name it. Normally we don’t see quite the level of absences at this point, but it’s picking up earlier than normal.”
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Kissel added that he’s currently down four drivers and he can’t seem to fill the positions. He explained that once he gets close, another driver goes out long-term.
“I’d love to say I have the magic wand or some vision into the future, or a better idea,” he said, explaining that all Arizona districts are competing for the same applicants. “And there are districts around me that are doing some temporary monies, they’re raising their hourly wages considerably. I was successful in getting our group [of] drivers a small rate increase. That might help with retention, but it doesn’t seem to be the magic number that has a line at the door for people to come in.”
He said he reiterates to his team how important they are to the overall mission of educating students. “We did have a couple of drivers right at the beginning of COVID-19 that chose not to return to the industry because of the exposure,” Kissel explained. “And I think that’s a concern with many, to be honest with you. Like right now, the crew [I have] on hand that goes out, they’ve been amazing. They understand that they serve this community, and they serve these families. But there’s some that have sat down and had conversations that they are concerned.”
He explained that compared to the past two years, the district is fully open again for in-person learning, so drivers are back on a bus with anywhere from 60 to 80 students.
He added that all students and drivers are required to wear a mask, adhering to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mask mandate for public transportation passengers. He said, however, there are varying levels of compliance by students. He explained that \students can opt out of the mask requirement while on campus, but they aren’t given that option on the school bus.
He said that the responsibility has fallen on his department to contact parents when children aren’t compliant with the school bus mask mandate. He added that he doesn’t feel it has the same weight that it would if someone from the campus was calling with a disciplinary report.