Seemingly like most everything else when it comes to addressing the new novel coronavirus, the fate of whether school bus drivers stay on district or company payrolls remains a local decision based on economics as much or more so than safety.
Media reports nationwide are calling attention to the fate of school bus drivers, as many districts don’t require traditional pupil transportation services right now amid starting the new school year virtually. This is the case for Edmonds School District in Washington state, located just north of downtown Seattle.
Harmony Weinberg, a spokeswoman for the district, shared that the recent decision to layoff all 175 of the district’s school bus drivers wasn’t taken lightly. “The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the Edmonds School District in many ways since this spring,” Weinberg told School Transportation News. “We are heartbroken that we will not be teaching and learning in-person as we start the 2020-2021 school year. Not only does this cause stress and unknowns for students and their families, it also creates other challenges to our entire school system, including our transportation department.”
She added that because the district will not be transporting students on school buses until in-person learning takes place, and due to reductions in state funding, the district was forced to implement bus driver layoffs. Weinberg explained that some students will be receiving individualized transportation, as part of their individual education plans. She added that some school bus drivers will be recalled within the next couple of weeks to perform that required transportation service.
However, she said the district implemented the layoffs on Aug. 14 and is committed to providing the drivers with information and directing them to different resources during this time.
This decision however wasn’t amended despite Gov. Jay Inslee issuing a proclamation on Aug. 26 allowing school districts to use their current transportation funding allocation for the ongoing and new school bus services of delivering homework, school supplies, Wi-Fi connections and meals during school closures. Weinberg clarified that the proclamation doesn’t provide funding for school bus drivers when students are not riding the bus.
“Funding for transportation is based on student ridership,” Weinberg said. “When ridership falls, funding falls. And unfortunately, until we can transport students again, funding to pay drivers is not an option.”
When schools do open up again for in-person education, Weinberg said the district hopes to provide a full transportation program, as usual. But that could be a challenge amid the ongoing driver shortage that has been exacerbated by fears about returning to work and, at least up until last month, additional weekly unemployment benefits that exceeded their normal salaries.
“Full transportation depends on the availability of an adequate number of school bus drivers,” Weinberg added.
Edmonds isn’t the only school district being forced to go in this direction. San Francisco Unified School District shared with School Transportation News that while it continued to pay contractor First Student since school closures began last March, it can no longer afford to do so.
Laura Dudnick, the public relations manager for the sixth-largest school district in California, said First Student is normally paid $30 million annually to bus approximately 3,500 students. When schools shut down, the district continued paying the non-services equivalent of salary and benefits for its drivers and staff through July 30, which amounted to $6.4 million.
“As SFUSD continues to face chronic budgetary pressure and a systemic structural deficit, we cannot afford to continue paying for non-service beyond the four-plus months we have already done so,” Dudnick said. “The district needs to prioritize paying SFUSD employees and meeting the current needs of our students as best we can with the resources we have.”
CBSN Bay Area reported that due to the district not paying the company, First Student had to lay off all 249 school bus drivers that service the San Francisco area, which was effective as of Aug. 31.
Jen Biddinger, corporate communications manager for First Student, said despite the company’s urging to SFUSD, the district decided to forgo funding student transportation at this timer. She added that First Student continues to take great pride in being part of the SFUSD team, as many drivers have served the district for decades.
“We rely on support from each of our school district partners to operate in the communities where we provide transportation,” she said. “The funding we receive covers all local costs, which allows us to pay our employees and maintain our fleet of buses at each individual First Student location, including San Francisco.”
She explained that as a result of not receiving payment from the district, First Student can no longer provide pay and benefits to their respective employees. “Unfortunately, it is in our employees’ best interest to file for unemployment or seek employment elsewhere,” she added.
SFUSD is in ongoing discussions with First Student regarding how students will be safely transported once school returns to in-person learning. Dudnick added she expects that with social distancing in place, the district will have to pay more than usual to provide services to its students.
Yet, Biddinger said if First Student experiences significant employee loss, its services might not be able to fully resume when schools reopen for in-person learning. She added the Cincinnati-based company is concerned about the material impact of the district’s decision on employees and the students and families they serve.
“School bus transportation is an extension of the education system. Most of our school district partners understand that maintaining the continuity of service is vital,” Biddinger added. “These are extraordinary times, and we hope SFUSD reconsiders its decision.”
Biddinger said a vast majority of First Student’s school district customers, about 80 percent, are continuing to provide funding support amid the challenges of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, other school districts are attempting to keep their drivers on staff, using them for either meal delivery, or vehicle maintenance upkeep.
In a School Transportation News survey conducted last month, 33 percent of the 232 respondents said they were starting the school year all online. Out of those respondents, only 3 percent stated their school bus drivers would be doing “nothing” during that virtual learning.
Sherwood School District in Tualatin, Oregon, starts the school year online on Sept. 14 and will be utilizing its school bus drivers to deliver school supplies and meals to students. Transportation Supervisor Sandi Miller said the district will be running all of its routes once a day to deliver those needed supplies and food.
She said her drivers are under contract for a four-hour minimum and will be receiving that rate while schools are closed for in-person learning. However, once it is safe to do so, the district plans on transporting kindergarten through third grade five days a week, so that will give drivers additional hours.
“So far my drivers seem to be pretty excited about getting back to seeing their kids,” Miller said. “We’re using all of the regular drivers on their routes for the meal delivery, so that kids see their bus drivers and bus drivers get to see their kids. And so, they’re pretty excited about that aspect of it.”
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Alice Independent School District in Texas is also utilizing its school bus drivers during remote learning. Transportation Supervisor Daniel Galvan said the district starts school on Sept. 8 and will go virtual for at least the first month, with the possibility of remaining online for another month.
He said his part-time school bus drivers will have the option to assist in the maintenance department, while the full-time transportation staff will have other duties in the meantime. He said that the drivers who choose not to transition into maintenance for the time being and instead choose to remain home during online education, will not get paid.
Galvan added that once school does open up, his district will be adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations of maintaining six feet of distance between student passengers. He explained he doesn’t think this will be a challenge, as almost 84 percent of the district’s families opted to stay virtual throughout the entire school year. But he noted that could always change.
However, he said 90 percent of families who attend a nearby neighboring district located about 50 miles away, opted for their children to go back to full in-person learning. But Galvan explained that the fewer than 20,000 people who live in Alice, a one high-school town located 50 miles east of Corpus Christi, witnessed an entire family of four become sick with the virus. Such developments could influence the town’s back-to-school decision, as the news hit too close to home.
“Losing one kid to COVID-19 is one too many,” Galvan concluded.