As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the newest conversation point breaking headlines is vaccine mandates that are popping up in all sectors of life. Plus, with the possibility of 5- to 11-year-olds being eligible for the shot next month, parents and transportation staff have much to consider.
As the first state to mandate vaccines for K-12 employees, California announced earlier this month that all students must also be vaccinated, when eligible, pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
Matthew Thomas, director of transportation for Anaheim Union High School District in California, noted that some parents have expressed concern for the child vaccine mandate. He said they are contemplating moving out of state due to it.
However, Thomas, who is also president of the California Association of School Transportation Officials, said that drivers throughout the state have expressed more job comfortability knowing that their co-workers and now potentially the students they transport will be vaccinated. Though, he said he has also heard that the state has lost bus drivers due to an employee vaccine mandate.
For those who chose not to get vaccinated, he said, Anaheim has on-site COVID-19 testing at the district paid for with state and federal funds. Four out of a total of 90 transportation employees are not vaccinated and have until Friday mid-morning each week to get tested, Thomas shared. California requires weekly testing for unvaccinated employees in K-12 school settings.
The PCR test results usually come back within two days, but Thomas said that his staff continue working while waiting for their results.
Elsewhere, like in Washington state and Chicago, operations have implemented similar mandates for employees. However, as School Transportation News previously reported, four drivers left Puyallup School District south of Seattle over the summer due to retirement. The district did not see any drivers resign following the vaccine mandate that went into place on Oct.18. Drivers were either vaccinated or filed a religious or medical exemption, Director of Transportation Elizabeth Fisher, said.
Related: Washington State Vaccine Mandate Exacerbates School Bus Driver Shortage
The resignations are not only subject to the school transportation industry. Twenty-one police officers in Chicago were suspended with no pay after refusing to disclose their vaccination status, local news stations reported. Healthcare workers and other front-line employees are following suit nationwide.
And if more states require vaccines for k-12 employees, school transportation leaders shared that they expect to see more resignations, which would worsen the school bus driver shortage.
Lisa Beech, the transportation director at Peral River County School District in Mississippi, shared with School Transportation News that she had COVID-19 last year and is now currently vaccinated.
“I don’t want [COVID-19] again,” Beech admitted, noting that the vaccines are working in preventing and lessening the effects of COVID. “I do know that it’s a personal choice and I agree with that. But I feel like in the school setting, I do think that everyone that works at the school should be vaccinated unless there’s some kind of a medical reason for them not to be.”
For students, however, she shared that she remains on the fence. The Delta variant is affecting children more than the original strain, and she noted if she was a parent of a 12-year-old child, she would probably get them vaccinated.
“I understand that that’s a personal choice,” she added. “They have to get vaccinated for all the other childhood illnesses and that’s worked. We don’t have measles, mumps or rubella because of it. But again, it’s a new virus and we’ve only had it for two years now so we’re still learning about it. I’m kind of on the fence when it comes to [mandating it for] children.”
However, she said she would feel more comfortable knowing that all students on her bus route have the vaccine as it gives that additional piece of security.
Meanwhile, Katie Rhodes, the transportation manager at Steps, Inc. in Virginia, said her Head Start organization will require vaccines for all employees by January. On Sept. 9, President Joe Biden introduced a new requirement for Head Start that employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Steps, Inc. transports children starting at 3-years-old to 5-years-old. However, the centers also serve students starting as young as 6 weeks old, which is why Rhodes supports such a mandate.
“We serve the children that are right now the most susceptible because they cannot get vaccinated, any child under the age of 12,” Rhodes said, adding that caring for students includes staff doing everything they can as safe as possible. “And by getting the vaccine, I believe that it would one of the easiest steps that somebody could take to ensure the safety of the children.”
Rhodes noted all transportation employees do have the vaccine, but not everyone in Steps, Inc. has been vaccinated. For those that are choosing not to get it, or can’t get it for health or religious reasons, there is a testing option. Though, Rhodes said they are still waiting to hear back from the Office of Head Start about testing guidance.
“Some sources are telling us they’re not going to accept the [rapid] test,” Rhodes said. “Which means if you test them on Friday, then you’ll maybe get the results by Monday, but if you test them on Monday, those people are out until they get the results. So, it’s kind of like you’re shooting yourself in the foot because nobody wants to be out of work for so long.”
When Peral River County School District (PRCSD) in Mississippi opened last school year they reopened while requiring masks for employees or students, and they didn’t miss a day of school. However, this year the district wanted to get back to a more normal schedule and reopened without the mask mandate. Lisa Beech, the transportation director at the district, shared that after a little over a week, PRCSD had to shut down school for two weeks as too many employees had contracted the virus, and the district couldn’t operate well with that many staff members out.
This school year if students cannot socially distance in both the school bus setting and the classroom setting, they must mask up. The additional layer of safety has so far kept the campus open for the entire school year. Editor’s Note: Due to low COVID-19 transmission numbers the mask mandate was recently lifted at the district.
She noted it’s been hard to get some staff members to come back to work after the unemployment benefits were so enticing to stay home, plus now with a vaccine mandate, she said finding applicants is “virtually impossible.” The entire program has 23 open positions, five of which are in transportation.
Her main concern right now is if employees must be terminated if they don’t get the vaccine. Or if they allow testing, who is paying for the testing?
“We don’t have it in our budget to pay,” she said, noting that the entire Head Start program is at a 73 percent vaccination rate. “How much does the test cost? It could cost us up to $3,000 a month that we don’t have.”
She noted another challenge could be if employees are required to pay for their own testing. Historically, school district employees work for the love of the children, and not the paycheck, she added.
“[There are] a lot of unanswered questions, so we’re just trying to figure out what the mandate is, and what kind of guidance the federal government is going to give us,” Rhodes said.
As far as vaccines for the children, she said there are also a lot of unknowns. But she noted, if a parent is asking for their child to be vaccinated, it should be made available to them.
“We just had a 10-year-old die from COVID-19 because she was the one picked by the classroom to take the sick children to and from the to the nurse’s office,” Rhodes said, speaking of an instance that occurred recently in Virginia. “So, she contracted COVID-19 and ended up dying. We’ve had several children in our state that have died.”
Meanwhile, Daniel Hardison, the director of transportation for Yadkin County Schools in North Carolina, noted that vaccination should be a choice for both employers and students. “I am not advocating for or against people getting vaccinated, that is not my place,” Hardison explained. “I feel that if someone chooses to be vaccinated, the vaccine should be available to them. If another person chooses that they would like to wait for more research to be completed or that the vaccine is not right for them, they, too, should have that choice.”
For employees in K-12 schools in Illinois, the COVID-19 vaccine is mandated. However, Michael Slife, executive director of transportation for Rockford Public Schools and a former state director at the Illinois State Board of Education, noted that for those who are choosing not to get the vaccine, testing is available.
He noted that currently, some drivers are choosing to pay for the tests themselves through a private care facility, while others are taking free tests offered by the state or individual counties. He added that 60 percent of his driving staff is not vaccinated.
Vaccines & the School Bus Driver Shortage
Pearl River County School District in Mississippi is currently short six drivers, and because of that, they have had to cut routes and distribute those students to other buses. “For the most part, up until this year we didn’t really have a driver shortage. I mean, every once in a while, we’d be without a regular route driver and we’d have to cover [it]. But never to this extreme, it’s extreme this year,” said Beech the transportation director, adding that mechanics and coaches are being asked to drive.
Anyone with a current CDL is being asked to drive in the district, she relayed. “But the main problem is that it is difficult to get people to take that learner’s permit to even start the process of getting a license. … And if you can go to Walmart in the state that’s next door to us, Louisiana, and make $5 more an hour cleaning bathroom then you can [driving] a school bus, that makes a big difference,” she observed
Beech noted that being one of the poorest districts in the state, the salary and hourly rates are low, which certainly doesn’t help with driver recruitment.
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Hardison at Yadkin County noted, however, that vaccine mandates could deter people from working. “Take a look at what is going on across the country, people in a variety of different fields, including health care, are resigning, being placed on leave or being fired for not taking the vaccine. I do not see our industry being any different,” he said.
Slife at Rockford Public Schools added that the district has both in-house transportation and contracted routes. While he hasn’t lost a driver on his staff because of the vaccine mandate, his contractor lost nine drivers the same day Gov. JB Pritzker made vaccines required in school settings.
Due to the labor shortage, he said, the district was down 12 routes at the start of the school year. That number is now down to six, but the routes that aren’t covered have been suspended. The result for the district is “rolling outages,” for different routes. Every day they have routes that don’t run, parents have to transport their students themselves, Slife said.
So that it doesn’t affect one student every day for two months, the routes that don’t run change. “They might get hit four- or five-times tops. It’s not ideal by any means,” Slife said, noting that by November all routes should be covered.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from its original version as Fisher later clarified the reason for drivers leaving.