Bus driver shortage may affect IRSD hybrid plans

DAGSBORO — The Indian River School District has adjusted its initial reopening with accelerated plans to bring elementary and middle school hybrid students into schools for in-person learning sooner that originally projected.

However, the drive to expedite the phase-in of high school students has hit a roadblock: a shortage of bus drivers.

Dr. Jay Owens

“We did look at ninth grade rolling in early … and subsequently, our 10th, 11th and 12th graders. We ran into a roadblock with transportation,” said IRSD Superintendent Dr. Jay Owens. “Our largest contractors are experiencing a decline in their drivers, which, when we looked at trying to develop routes for these students on an expedited basis, they do not feel they are going to have drivers aligned for that at this time.”

At the high school level, only ninth grade hybrid students will receive in-person instruction during the first marking period. These freshmen will be divided into four cohorts and attend school one day per week, beginning Nov. 9.

High school students in grades 10, 11 and 12 at Sussex Central and Indian River will receive remote instruction for the entire first marking period, which concludes Nov. 18.

“As of right now, we can’t expedite the roll-in for our high school students because of the driver shortage. We will be looking at viable options,” said IRSD Assistant Superintendent Karen Blannard. “We did investigate the transportation challenges that we are faced with right now for our high school students returning. Currently, we have 27 bus contractors, and we are seeing some drivers decide to discontinue their work, because some of our drivers are elderly, and they do have underlying medical health conditions.

“Many drivers were on board at the beginning of the school year, but since then, they have declined,” said Ms. Blannard. “So the concerns around the coronavirus have come up for them, and many of them have opted out recently.”

Overall, it adds up to 19 vacancies, as of the board of education meeting Monday. Driver vacancies include 10 through Layton Busing LLC, four each with Dutton Bus Service and Johnson Transportation and another through a smaller contractor, Ms. Blannard said.

“Just out of curiosity, is this a problem with other districts, as well?” asked IRSD board member Dr. Donald Hattier.

“We are one of just a few districts that is actually bringing students back in right now,” Dr. Owens said. “I can tell you our friends over at Seaford and Woodbridge and Cape (Henlopen) have been doing out-the-box thinking on how they are going to get students transported in.”

Based on transportation hurdles, first-year board member Dr. Leo J. Darmstadter III polled district administration on the “confidence” in the original dates set forth by the board on hybrid high school students returning in cohorts.

“They do have drivers on the horizon, but it is about a two-month process to get processed, to go through (the Department of Motor Vehicles) to get proper licensure,” said Dr. Owens.

Ms. Blannard explained that the timing is key.

“We do have folks that are in training programs right now to receive the certification. But again, it’s the time frame … to receive the CDL licensure. That is our challenge,” she said. “We continue to advertise. We are also reaching out to our own employees to see if there would be an interest in training programs.”

The IRSD district recently met with Tyler Bryan, who handles student transportation for the Delaware Department of Education, and is exploring strategies, including a student/parent survey.

Based on data, an option could be double or triple runs. Under COVID-19 guidelines, there is a maximum of 23 students per bus.

“Of course, we would have to talk to contractors about that to see if that is a viable option. We will be collecting data from families to see which students would require transportation, as opposed to those that maybe option for self-transportation,” said Ms. Blannard.

School board president Rodney Layfield added that the transportation issue is disappointing.

“This is difficult to accept. I respect the fact transportation is a vital role,” he said. “But it is the tail wagging the dog. We can actually start working on the kids back into the classroom, but the transportation is not there. This is very difficult to accept. We’re so close to getting students back in school. It’s just a hard conversation — a hard pill to swallow.”

Pre-K and first graders in hybrid returned to school in cohort design in mid-September, and second and third grade cohorts are set to return Monday.

At this week’s meeting, the IRSD board approved expedited hybrid returns for fourth, fifth and sixth graders Oct. 12, one week ahead of schedule, as well as seventh and eighth graders Oct. 19, also a week earlier than originally scheduled.

IRSD board vice president Leolga Wright urged the district to not “close the door on getting high school students back.” She suggested that the family survey could poll students who have driver’s licenses and the ability to drive themselves to school and/or parents who may be willing to drop their child off at school.

Dr. Owens also reported that the school opening has gone very well, with about 1,200 students on a weekly basis coming in to receive hybrid instruction in the A and B cohorts.

Mr. Layfield emphasized the need to get students in schools.

“I think there is a lot of hard work being done in the district, and it is greatly appreciated. But it is a daunting task for working parents with their children not in school. My phone has rung off the hook for the first week-and-a-half of school based upon working parents,” he said.

“I appreciate what we are doing, but I am all about an aggressive plan to get them back into school. Working parents are having a very tough time trying to make ends meet and keep their students up to par with what is going on, specifically at the elementary school level.”

Dr. Darmstadter agreed.

“It is quite a challenge for working parents right now with the way these schedules are set. We’re doing a good job so far, it looks like,” he said. “The only thing I have to add is for high school students. When they come back, they will be in an A, B, C and D cohort. Right now, they are only receiving one day of actual synchronous learning at home. And since they are not going to get into school until November, essentially, unless we speed up the process, I don’t (know) why there couldn’t be at least two days of synchronous learning at home instead of just that one day.”

Dr. Owens said that may be possible.

“The plans we developed were intended to have additional synchronous opportunities,” he said, adding that he would relay board member concerns to his team for analysis.

Ms. Wright shared thoughts on the student/athlete angle, adding that “if you can be on the football field … and play a sport, you also need to be in the classroom.”

Dr. Hattier agreed.

“I haven’t heard a whole lot from parents concerning kids in school,” he said. “What I did hear, as Ms. Wright has just talked about, if they can play football, why aren’t they in school? So the sooner we can get them back, … the better.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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