A shortage of school bus drivers has prompted the Cheney School District to ask students to not take the bus if possible, as well as change the start and end times of the school day as more and more students head back to the classroom.
School districts around the region often advertise open school bus driver positions, but Superintendent Rob Roettger said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue.
“We’ve always been able to meet our needs,” he said. “The last couple of years have been pretty tight.”
A couple of bus drivers retired last year, and some have been unable or unwilling to drive during the pandemic.
“It’s been a variety of things,” he said. “We’re roughly down 15 drivers at this point.”
True social distancing is difficult on a school bus, but the district is doing what it can to reduce the spread of the disease, Roettger said. One of the key issues is the recommendation from the Spokane County Regional Health District to only allow one child per seat instead of two. “We’re trying to keep bus loads at 50% capacity,” Roettger said.
That new requirement, of course, increases the need for bus drivers. The Cheney School District is quite large, spanning 380 square miles. All students who live 1 mile or more from their school are eligible to ride the bus.
Roettger contacted parents at the end of December to request that those who were able to provide transportation to school for their student(s) do so. “It’s possible that can help us,” he said.
Roettger said the district is committed to providing transportation to every student who needs it. “We’re going to find a way to transport those who qualify if parents cannot,” he said.
Though the number of bus drivers is down, Roettger said he’s been impressed at how the drivers have stepped up and been flexible this school year.
“Our transportation department and drivers have been fantastic through this whole thing,” he said. “They’ve delivered meals and technology and homework.”
Parents who can transport their own children have been asked to contact the transportation department. Transportation director Ellen Holland said that as of early this week, only a handful of parents had called to say they could bring their own children to school.
“I think the people who are riding the bus really need the bus,” she said.
As more students go back to school, the district is finalizing plans to stagger the school day start and end times to accommodate the shortage of bus drivers and the need to transport fewer students in each bus. Elementary students will attend school from 8:20 a.m. to 3 p.m. while secondary grades will attend from 9:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., Roettger said.
While students in upper grades will have less time in the classroom , they’ll still be expected to do the same amount of learning, Roettger said. “There will still be asynchronous learning,” he said. “There will still be assignments.”
The push is on to hire more bus drivers. Two are in training and two more have expressed interest but have not yet filled out applications, Holland said. Applicants must be older than 22, have a good driving record and be able to pass a background check. A commercial driver’s license is not required.
“We do all our training here at the bus garage,” Holland said.
The training includes a week of classroom work and about two weeks training behind the wheel of a school bus. But before drivers can start road training, they have to pass several state Department of Licensing tests in order to get a commercial driver’s license learning permit, Holland said. Once a person completes the training and earns their CDL, they can start transporting students.
Holland said she thinks the process and the work involved sometimes stops people from applying. “It’s not a terribly easy process to go through the training,” she said.
Anyone interested in completing bus driver training can contact the transportation department at (509) 559-4523.
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