Some Delaware school districts struggling with bus driver shortages

Polytech High School welcomed students back for hybrid classes at the beginning of September. (Delaware State News file photo/Marc Clery)

Retirement and health concerns have some, but not all, downstate school districts grappling with bus driver shortages in the initial stages of in-person instruction during the coronavirus pandemic.

In one of the state’s largest districts, Indian River, a driver shortage has forced the district to delay efforts to bring in high school students earlier than projected.

Indian River opened Sept. 17, utilizing both hybrid and remote models for its pre-K students and first graders. District administrators this week announced plans to accelerate the roll-in schedule for older elementary students and middle schoolers who have opted for hybrid learning — a combination of both in-school and remote instruction.

However, accelerated welcoming of hybrid high schoolers, which remains scheduled for early November for freshmen and even later for other grades, is not a viable option with the district down 19 drivers.

Under the state guidelines, 23 students are the maximum allowed on a standard school bus, IRSD officials said. The district hopes it can fill the voids with new drivers upon their obtaining CDL licensure, a process that takes several months.

District shortages

Seaford School District also is addressing some shortages.

“The driver shortage has been an issue for a couple years, not just this year,” said Jason Cameron, director of human resources/public information for the district. “Retirement and resignations seemed to hit us harder this year than others. I cannot speak to the contractor drivers, but some of our retirements/resignations did cite health concerns.”

Seaford is down one driver and two district bus aides, while its contractors are down six drivers. The Seaford district has 39 bus routes assigned, Mr. Cameron said.

In lower New Castle County, Appoquinimink School District — which continues to experience a growing student population — noted a bus driver shortage was impacting its transportation as well.

In an update from earlier this month, Appoquinimink Superintendent Matt Burrows said bus drivers were still needed to meet the district’s increased demand. As of Sept. 7, the district had 333 new students — “a number that continues to climb daily,” he wrote.

Lil Miles, a spokeswoman for the district, said that after surveying parents to find those who preferred hybrid instruction beginning in mid-October, the transportation department began this week to determine bus routing with the number of students who will be in school. Afterward, the district will work with the contractor to find out how many drivers are needed

Capital’s transportation supervisor Bruce Ashby echoed the sentiment that bus driver shortages may become more of a problem as districts start to bring students back. For Capital, he estimates that between the district and contractors, they’ll be down at least 10 drivers.

At left, Woodbridge Middle School Assistant Principal Rachel Gibson monitors bus student dismissal Wednesday afternoon at the school in Bridgeville. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

“We won’t know until actually when the buses start rolling, but of course a lot of our driver population is 65-plus so a lot of them are concerned about their health, and what they could expose themselves or family members to,” he said. “We’re going to lose a lot of drivers through that.”

Smooth ride

Meanwhile, some school districts in Kent and Sussex counties report no major issues.

“Right now, we have not had any problems with our bus drivers,” said Lake Forest Superintendent Dr. Steven Lucas, “We don’t own our own buses; we rely heavily on our contractors, and to this point, they’re still telling us that they can support us up through our Phase 3, which is 50% of our students coming in on an A/B week model.”

Phase 3 is one of Lake Forest’s stages for bringing students back. Phase 2 begins Oct. 19.

“When we go to Phase 2, all our buses will be running, even though we’re only bringing back pre-K to (grades) one, four, six and nine, but they’ll just be running at very limited capacity, and then, they’ll fill up when we go to Phase 3,” said Dr. Lucas.

He added that they “don’t know if there’s going to be a shortage right yet” when they hit Phase 3. If it does come to that, “we have to just think creatively and see how we can get more kids to school,” he said.

In the Smyrna district, Superintendent Patrik Williams said, “We are starting with grades K-3 on Monday, so drivers of buses for students in grades 4-12 are assisting us as needed.”

The Milford School District, which straddles the Kent/Sussex county line, anticipates no major transportation challenges.

“We are very fortunate to have such a great group of contractors. We don’t have the same issues that other districts are experiencing,” said Jon LoBiondo, Milford’s supervisor of transportation and school safety. “Due to the smaller number of students on each bus, meeting the new regulations, we are able to consolidate a few routes to accommodate the current shortage. Contractors are working very hard to fill the gaps. Phasing the students in over time is also a benefit with regard to sorting out smaller issues that will arise.”

Caesar Rodney, which is experiencing a heightened demand for in-person schooling at the secondary level, reported no problems with contracted drivers, said Mike Williams, a spokesman for the district.

“While the drivers are not driving at the moment, we have not been notified that any of our contractors are short-staffed at this point,” he said. “The district runs a small fleet of buses and vans. All other needed services are contracted.”

At Sussex Tech High School, all routes appear to be covered. Sussex Tech students are on a modified remote-learning plan for the first marking period, which ends in mid-November.

“Our bus contractors have informed us that all of their Sussex Technical High School routes are fully covered, despite a state and national shortage,” said Sussex Tech spokesman Dan Shortridge.

“We do have small groups of students on campus for voluntary in-person instruction or demonstrations two days a week and provide bus transportation for those students, if needed. Our administration and board of education continue to monitor the overall COVID situation and will be making a decision about the second marking period status in the weeks to come.”

Woodbridge School District Superintendent Heath Chasanov reports Woodbridge is in good shape.

“We’re good for now. Over the last five to 10 years, I would say it has been harder to find drivers. But we contract out, so we don’t own any of the buses. We have bus contractors and they are the ones who hire the drivers. We are in constant contact with them. So, we’re fine in terms of drivers,” said Mr. Chasanov. “One of the issues that people are facing now is with COVID and everything it is harder to get more people certified to drive. So, if you had a problem it is harder to rectify. But we’ve been good.”

Polytech High School, which welcomed students back for hybrid classes at the beginning of September, likewise reported no problems with bus drivers.

“As of right now, we have fortunately not had this issue here at Polytech and are very grateful for our contracted bus drivers and contractors themselves,” said Nick Johnson, a spokesman for the district. “Their professionalism and adaptability during this pandemic has helped us problem-solve and provide the necessary transportation for our students for instruction, as well as now with athletics and other extra-curricular activities beginning.”

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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