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Washington school districts may use buses to deliver supplies for home learning

Durham School Services drivers hang a ‘help wanted’ sign on a bus at Joe Albi Stadium on July 23, 2020.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

As school districts ponder how to someday reopen schools, one of the most vexing problems is how to get them to buildings in the first place.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left all sorts of speed bumps in their path: a national and local shortage of drivers, the difficulties of social distancing in a crowded bus and the challenges of paying for it all as budgets have been blown up by the recession.

However, districts in Washington got a break on Wednesday when Gov. Jay Inslee issued a proclamation that provides some security and flexibility.

For Spokane and other districts, that means bus drivers will be able to deliver meals, computers and other supplies to students to facilitate distance learning.

In other words, they will be bringing the school to the student.

“It offers flexibility, which we have advocated be provided,” Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard said.

“We are following up with the state to better understand the funding implications and application of the formula,” Swinyard said.

Meanwhile, the district’s transportation provider, Durham School Services, is still hiring drivers for the day when education gets back to normal.

Finding drivers is a perennial headache, but it’s worse this year. Many are retirees and at higher risk of serious illness from coronavirus infection.

“We’re always looking for drivers,” said Rhonda McLellan, general manager of Durham’s operations in Spokane.

“It’s been a very slow process,” said McLellan, who said that limited hours at state offices are making it harder for trainees to get their licenses.

At the same time, she said the company is contacting veteran drivers to make sure they’re comfortable with the new reality.

“We’re doing what we can to take care of our people,” McLellan said.

Durham has time on its side. All three of its local clients – Spokane, Nine Mile Falls and Saint George’s School – are starting the year with distance learning only. However, Durham must be able to pivot quickly once schools reopen.

“The challenge is that we need to have things ready immediately,” said Cindy Coleman, the district’s chief financial officer.

Already, Durham is planning for transportation of special education and English Language Development students.

“We have a lot of things going on right now,” McLellan said.

Durham is also dealing with rising costs, mostly from the increase in the state minimum wage from $12 per hour to $13.50.

After negotiations, the company and the district agreed to a 5.8% increase in their contract amount. That puts this year’s tab at $13,900,000, an increase of about $800,000.

During Wednesday night’s school board meeting, director Mike Wiser questioned that increase. After all, Durham’s other expenses – gas and wear and tear – have decreased.

However, Coleman explained that Durham’s contract with the district is on a per-route basis.

Coleman also said that the district negotiated a lower rate in the spring “to basically cover their overhead.”

“We were trying to be very good stewards,” she said.