According to a recent School Transportation News reader survey, 93 percent of 165 respondents said that their school district is offering full in-person learning (allowing parents to opt-out) to every student for the 2021-2022 school year. This means school buses are back on the road.
Less than 1 percent of respondents said they were returning to a hybrid model of education, and about another 1 percent are offering full virtual learning. The remaining 5 percent of respondents stated that they were offering full-person learning, without the option of virtual learning, unless it was for students in K-6 or those with underlying health conditions.
Lake County Schools in Florida returned to a “normal” school year for the 2020-2021 year. Director of Transportation Edward Scott Pfender explained that although students were given the option of virtual learning last year, he kept all the district’s normal routes in place because he didn’t want to lose drivers. He noted that during the first semester last year, around 57 percent of students came back to in-person learning, but by the second semester the number was up to 72 percent.
This school year, however, Pfender said the district removed the virtual option. “We know our numbers are up,” Pfender said, adding that there is no current stat as it’s only been a couple of weeks of school and they’re still registering students.
Another difference for this school year, compared to last, is that this year masks are optional at Lake County.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered that school districts could not mandate mask-wearing and instead should be the choice of parents. But on Friday, a state court ruled that DeSantis overstepped his authority and allowed individual districts to proceed with enforcement.
The lawsuit was filed by a group of parents. As School Transportation News previously reported, many school districts in Florida were defying the state rules and mandated mask usage anyways.
“This year, [masks at Lake County are] completely optional,” Pfender said, adding that last year the district supplied masks to drivers and students who forgot one, but this year it’s up to the individual to bring a mask if they want to wear them. “… We’re not supplying students with masks but if they want to wear a mask, they’re more than welcome to.”
He added that the district also isn’t socially distancing while on the school bus, due in part to budget constraints and the school bus driver shortage. He said the communications have been very clear to parents that the routing will be “normal” and the district doesn’t have the ability to add routes at this time.
Meanwhile, Palmer Public Schools in Massachusetts is requiring masks on board the school bus for all students and the driver, per the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mask mandate on public transportation. But Director of Transportation Drew Damien said the school board is still determining whether masks will be required in school buildings.
“I think parents are holding off on the [school bus] registration process to see what’s going to happen [with masking in buildings] because as you can imagine the questions are going to be, ‘Well why does my child have to wear a mask to school in a bus if they don’t have to have it on when they get to school,’” Damien noted, who is also the president of the Massachusetts Association for Pupil Transportation. “… Depending on how this plays out, we think it will have an effect on the overall ridership numbers, which could be helpful or harmful to those who are dealing with a driver shortage.”
He said that while his district isn’t directly affected by the driver shortage, he is seeing it statewide. Damien added that COVID-19 has exacerbated the driver shortage, especially since the older population drives school buses and they are also the most vulnerable to the disease.
“I was in a meeting this morning with my contractor, [JP McCarthy and Sons] and we’re very lucky to report that we’re in good shape, every route has drivers available at this time,” Damien said, adding that the district runs about 11 routes.
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Lake County Schools in Florida, however, is feeling the effects of the driver shortage. The district typically transports 18,000 to 19,000 of its total 44,000 students across 240 routes running two to three tiers. “In a normal year we will run a little bit over 5 million miles,” Pfender said, adding that he started this school year with 26 open routes.
“We’ve tightened up our routes as much as we can, and we communicate with our schools, so they understand that we have a shortage and some of the buses are going to be running late,” he added, noting that he’s had to look to other staff members to help with school bus driving.
“We’ve been trying to do some additional marketing to bring in new employees,” he continued, noting that the district does newspaper and online postings as well as attends job fairs. “We do all of our own training, from the interview process to get them [fully certified] it can take three or four weeks or sometimes longer, depending on the motivation of the new employee.”
Previously, the district only paid its applicants once they graduated to the behind-the-wheel training. But this year, Lake County Schools is looking into paying applicants from day one, as it’s hard to train for so long without a paycheck.
Lamar Central Independent School District in Texas is also short school bus drivers this year. Transportation Director Mike Jones said the district is down 40 drivers and is working to recruit more with ride and drive events as well as job fairs, and recruitment bonuses.
In the meantime, he said his 240 routes will be running twice as to ensure all the students are safely transported to school.
No masks will be required onboard the bus, and no social distancing or temperature checks will be taking place. He added that cleaning protocols will be at the same levels they were using prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.