Shortage of Drivers, COVID-19 Quarantines Impact School Bus Schedules in Region 4
Shortly after the start of the 2021–’22 school year, during the third week in September, a rash of COVID-19 cases among school bus drivers transporting students in Region 4 lead to combined bus routes for students and significant delays in the district.
Ann Grunbeck, location manager for Region 4’s transportation provider, First Group, reported at a Supervision District Committee meeting on Oct. 7 that the company is in compliance with the governor’s mandate requiring all bus drivers be inoculated against the virus. Any driver who is not fully vaccinated due to an exemption is tested on a weekly basis, she said.
“There is a whole procedure, safeguard, to ensure the drivers are not symptomatic and do not drive when they have any symptoms,” said Grunbeck. “We have put people on quarantine and not allowed them to drive if they have symptoms whatsoever; that is our standard procedure.”
Of the five bus drivers who came down with COVID-19, she said, three were unvaccinated, one was fully vaccinated, and one was partially vaccinated.
“There were bus drivers that did test positive, some of them being fully vaccinated,” said Grunbeck. “So, it’s not just the unvaccinated, etc. We did have people here who came down with COVID who were fully vaccinated.”
In addition to dealing with staff quarantines related to COVID-19 and excused personnel absences due to medical issues or sick leave, the transportation company is challenged with a shortage of drivers, as are most other companies throughout the state.
Grunbeck said that she is fully staffed at 20 but currently has 16 drivers and that finding drivers is an issue.
“We have always been able to borrow other drivers from other yards if we had somebody out on leave,” said Grunbeck. “If we had five sports trips in one day, we could find other drivers from other yards to kind of fill in, where this year, we do not have that.”
Although the company has worked to meet the needs of Region 4’s Athletic Department to transport students for after-school athletic events this year, getting kids home from school in the afternoons is the priority, said Grunbeck.
The company is actively recruiting bus drivers, with a sign-on bonus and higher wage for those already certified to drive a school bus.
“I continue to actively recruit from other yards because when people already come in with their license as opposed to training them, those are the ideal people,” said Grunbeck. “They can hit the roads the next day.”
The company is following COVID-19 protocols for the 2021–’22 school year including disinfecting school buses, a mandatory mask requirement, and assigned seating, particularly at the elementary school level, which Grunbeck said allows for more efficient contact tracing.
The COVID-19 pandemic, “it’s an ongoing challenge for us and we have faced it head on, but it will continue to be a challenge for us,” said Grunbeck.