Despite the 2021-2022 school year serving as a beacon of hope for “returning to normal” operations, California transportation directors shared that COVID-19 mitigation strategies aren’t going away anytime soon — factor in the exacerbated driver shortage and bell time changes and this school year is looking like anything but normal.
As the new Delta variant concerns parents and teachers alike, California officials are once again requiring students and staff inside school buildings and on school buses to continue with masking practices first put into place last spring. For Downey Unified School District, which adheres to Los Angeles County guidelines, the new school year will also mean the return of social distancing on board the school bus.
Transportation Supervisor Jose Cruz explained that county health officials are recommending social distancing. At this point, his school district is complying. He shared that would mean one student per seat, reducing an 84-passenger bus to 28 riders, and a 33-passenger bus to 11 passengers.
“The limitations are really bad for us at this point in time,” Cruz said.
He added that many parents have chosen not to send their students back to school, which does help with social distancing. But he noted that he needs to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
Cruz relayed that the district has about 30 routes but will have to run them twice if all student riders return. In addition, all drivers and students will be required to wear masks, unless there are special circumstances such as a disability or condition that is exacerbated by usage.
“We’re lucky that we still have the same number of drivers from last year and all of them are planning to return,” he said.
Coming out of last school year, the district didn’t have a shortage of drivers. But with social distancing in place and more students returning to in-person instruction, it’s anticipated a shortage will result. Plus, once sporting events fully return, he noted that for 40 students, two buses would be needed to go to the same location, due to social distancing.
“It’s not easy to hire bus drivers at this point, either,” Cruz said, adding the district currently has 25 permanent drivers on staff and about 10 substitutes. He shared that the biggest challenge is school bus drivers are retiring from school districts, looking for more working hours.
One of those school districts that lost drivers due to retirement was Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. Director of Transportation Neal Abramson said he’s starting the school year three drivers short, but district enrollment is also down 400 to 500 students, so ridership numbers should follow suit.
Abramson said he hasn’t sold all his bus passes yet and is currently only allowing students who rode the bus two school years ago to sign up for a bus pass this year. Then he said, they will go to the school high a week before the first day of school, which is Aug. 19 to inquire about more riders.
“We don’t know exactly what our numbers are, but I’m sure I won’t have any full bus routes,” Abramson said. “They weren’t full before the shutdown. I doubt they’ll be full now, after hearing about all the number of people that have left.”
He noted that people have moved away from Los Angeles County and the state in general due to the high cost of living. Some students, he added, have also enrolled in private schools instead.
SMMUSD usually runs about 12 special education routes, plus two contracted routes and seven general education routes. However, for this year, he’s going to have to contract out five routes, due to the three open driver positions that he doesn’t anticipate being filled any time soon.
Abramson added SMMUSD will not be continuing with social distancing and will be able to fill buses to capacity. Though he added that all students and the bus drivers on board the bus will be wearing masks, and buses will be disinfected daily.
San Jose Unified School District, however, is short about 20 drivers for the upcoming school year. Transportation and Fleet Manager Corrin Reynolds said the school district usually runs around 101 routes, but only has 80 drivers on staff.
He noted that as per California Senate Bill 328, which goes into effect next school year, middle schools cannot start before 8 a.m. and high school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Schools altered their schedules at the district for this upcoming school year to fit the modified time requirements from the state, as well as suiting local conditions, Reynolds explained.
“The district said we’re not going to go back to 2019-2020 times and then change again in 2022-2023,” he noted. “We’re going to just take the plunge and adhere to SB 328 in 2021-2022 for longer-term stability. Massive changes in bell schedules throughout the district, pre-K to post-secondary means we’re rebuilding routes from scratch again. Simulations seem to indicate a route count in the low 80s, mostly for special education. And because we don’t have the capacity for doing both home-to-school and special education, emphasis is shifting to special education with about only an estimated half to two-thirds the routes we used to run for regular education.”
The bell time changes will allow for optimum transportation efficiency, Reynolds explained. But he added that to conserve their resources, if needed, the district will contract out with ALC Schools as well as a bus contractor like First Student to pick up any slack in routes.
However, SMMUSD’s Abramson isn’t too keen on the bell time changes. His district also decided to start the time changes this year, but the late 8:30 a.m. start at high schools complicates his midday field trips for elementary students.
“People forget how unique Santa Monica-Malibu Unified is. Not only do we have all the challenges of the roadway being closed by the slightest thing — a power outage or an accident — you literally have to go miles and miles and miles out of your way to get around it,” Abramson explained. “… [I]f you’re dropping off your high school students at 8:30 a.m. in Malibu, it’s going to take you an hour to get back into Santa Monica to pick up an elementary school to take them to the zoo. So, you’re getting into Santa Monica by 9:30 a.m., picking up the kids, and by the time we get on the road, it’s 9:40 a.m. There’s no way you can make a 10 o’clock or a 10:15 a.m. call time at the zoo.”
He explained the earliest one would be able to get to the zoo, for example, would be 10:45 a.m., which limits the elementary students on their field trip, as the drivers must navigate rush hour traffic to be back at Malibu schools by 3:30 p.m.
“Other school districts are having the same issue or are going to have the same issue when the bell times change,” Abramson said. “We’re already experiencing it now because they moved it up. But people don’t realize the domino effect, you change one thing it affects so many other things.”
He said he will have to inform elementary and middle schools that transportation won’t be able to provide buses until 9:30 a.m. He said the schools would have the option to hire an outside contractor, but many of them shut down during the pandemic or raised their prices.
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In terms of driver recruiting strategies, Reynolds said San Jose’s most successful tool is its Type A van driver program, as those vehicles don’t require a commercial driver’s license for operation.
“Candidates come off the street, drive a van [while] transporting kids and learn how to become a school bus driver in the midday,” he said. “Well over half of our drivers have come through this way, earning kudos from the board for our successful recruitment efforts. We also tout our killer benefits package and overall compensation package that compares well with other districts and vendors in the area even though our hourly pay is less.”
He added that even though the district’s total package is comparable, drivers are attracted to the higher salaries at vendors and other districts. To aid in retention strategies, the district holds regular BBQs and potlucks and other events to further a “family atmosphere.”
“We’re hoping to get those going again,” Reynolds said.
He noted that his view into his “cracked crystal ball” estimates that the district will have about 90 percent ridership or 700 students at the special education level and about 60 percent or 600 students at the regular education level. Reynolds concluded that school bus drivers and students will continue to wear masks and drivers are required to clean high-touch surfaces between runs.