Rides and religious buses: how families cope with the current shortage of bus drivers

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Monisha Walters had it all sorted out.

Her two children took the bus to school in the morning. Then, at the end of school, they would take the bus from Minneapolis to an after school care program near their home.

But that plan ran into a big deal about two weeks before the start of the school year, when Walters received a voicemail and email explaining that his kids might not have a bus on the first day of school. school. Her children’s school was one of many in the state – and across the country – struggling with the severe shortage of school bus drivers.

On the first day, the bus driver showed up in the morning, but dropped off his children about 30 minutes late. And, an hour after the end of the school day, Walters was informed that there would be no afternoon bus for his children.

From that point on, Walters drove his children to school. And during the first week of the year, her kids carpooled with other families after school was over.

Fortunately, the church where the care program is housed has found a more permanent solution. Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church allows program staff to pick up students from school and bring them to the health center on a church bus.

“It saved the lives of all of us,” Walters said.

Amid the nationwide bus driver shortage, which persists three months after the start of the school year, parents are offering workarounds to get their kids to and from school every day. Some have turned to carpooling with friends and neighbors, while in other cases, school staff or after-school daycare workers have stepped in to fill the void.

Long waits, disrupted routines

Parents said it was common for school buses to not show up at all, and when they do, to show up late – sometimes even hours late. In addition, many routes have been combined to address the shortage of drivers. As a result, many buses in service are overcrowded and cover long journeys, putting unvaccinated children at risk.

Sonia Núñez-Gibbs is a single mother and professional educational support interpreter and student support worker for Minneapolis Public Schools. Her 7-year-old daughter is expected to travel by bus to a park and recreation program in her neighborhood after school.

However, for the first three to four weeks of the year, there was no extracurricular bus for her daughter or the other five children from her school participating in this program.

Sonia Núñez-Gibbs’ daughter waits at her bus stop in Minneapolis. Due to a shortage of bus drivers, she would wait in the school hallway for up to two hours a day with her teacher or deputy principal until her mother could come and pick her up after work.

Courtesy of Sonia Núñez-Gibbs

So the second-grader would wait in the hallway of the school for up to two hours a day with her teacher or vice-principal until her mother could come and pick her up after work.

“It’s pretty shameful to show up and realize that your kid is the last one there,” Núñez-Gibbs said.

Due to her job, she cannot leave early every day to pick up her daughter. And bringing her daughter to work is not a realistic option either.

It took about two weeks and a handful of conversations with everyone from district transportation workers to the school’s deputy principal to make sure there would be a bus stop at the park and recreation program. of his daughter. Núñez-Gibbs said it appeared the district had cut off her daughter’s route and moved everyone to other routes.

Her daughter no longer waits for hours after school with her teachers, who Núñez-Gibbs says stayed with her daughter “out of the goodness of their hearts” to help her in a difficult situation. However, the second-grader understood the difficulties, Núñez-Gibbs said. “She knows I’ll never leave her there because I forgot her.”

For Erin Clotfelter, transportation complications have been particularly troublesome for her two oldest sons, who have autism. As part of their one-on-one education program, they go door-to-door with a small group of students and also have a helper on their bus.

They started the year without a driver for their Northeast Middle School route to Minneapolis, and once there was a driver, the bus would arrive two hours after the start of the school day.

The lack of regular bus rides has proven to be an additional challenge for her sons, who thrive in routines as change can be disruptive.

When there was no driver, Clotfelter undertook to drive his sons and his neighbor’s child who was taking the same bus. Eventually, the district transport department found a driver with route assistance; However, the family vowed to continue driving in the hopes of freeing the driver for an alternate route. Every day Clotfelter spends around 2.5 hours in his car getting all the children to and from school.

“There is no waiting for the buses late in the morning, and we don’t have to guess how everyone gets to school each day, which reduces the anxiety a bit,” a- she declared. “I am grateful that I can drive and offer my empty seats to other children in the neighborhood who need them. ”

How to solve the problem in the long term?

Many parents predict that the driver shortage is part of the “new normal” to which they will have to adjust. Many districts have implemented quick, short-term solutions, but long-term solutions will not be easy.

In St. Paul, the district shifted the start times of seven schools and canceled bus service to four high schools, offering students transit cards instead. District officials said they expect high school students to rely on public transportation until the end of the school year.

In Minneapolis, the district offers hiring bonuses – as well as retention bonuses for current drivers – and has added 10 new drivers since the start of the new year. In addition, the district has a transportation reimbursement program for families who opt out of bus services and make their own way to school. The district said more than 1,400 families submitted claims, although not all were eligible.

District officials continue to consider ways to address the driver shortage.

“We believe there are systematic changes that need to happen at the state and federal levels in order to address this problem that most districts across the country are facing,” said spokesperson Crystina Lugo-Beach. “However, we are still looking at different options that would help alleviate the problem. We have considered changing the walking zones, combining special education and general education buses, and other alternatives, although no decisions have been made at this time.

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