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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  K-12 education

Spokane schools coping with bus driver shortage, vaccine exemption requests

Students board Durham School services buses in this photo from 2018. Spokane Public Schools trying to manage to tough problems: a bus driver shortage that has delayed some routes, and hundreds of employees who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.  (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)
Students board Durham School services buses in this photo from 2018. Spokane Public Schools trying to manage to tough problems: a bus driver shortage that has delayed some routes, and hundreds of employees who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)

Five weeks into the new year, Spokane Public Schools is struggling with two vexing problems not of its own making: How are some children getting to school and how safe will they be when they arrive?

Every day, hundreds of children are dealing with bus routes delayed for up to two hours, thanks to a national driver shortage that has hit the district harder than others because it doesn’t own its own buses.

At the same time, the district must interview hundreds of employees who have submitted exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee.

“These are interesting times for sure,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said Tuesday.

Both problems were thrust upon the district before the school year began.

With the delta variant on the rise and some parents questioning Inslee’s mask mandate, times were already challenging.

Now the district is stretching its staff to deal with both problems. Some employees have been driving vans to pick up students.

Meanwhile, Swinyard said the human resources department is “working around the clock” to interview staff to determine the appropriate accommodations for those who have been granted the vaccine exemption.

That’s probably the bigger concern for parents. However, Swinyard said the district is working “intentionally” as it interviews hundreds of employees, one by one.

That will take time. Of the district’s roughly 5,200 full- and part-time employees, about 400 have applied for and been granted exemptions. Another 350 or so have yet to declare their intentions.

It’s assumed that many of the latter will request the exemption, leaving more triage work for the HR department.

Depending on the employee’s job, accommodations will run the gamut, Swinyard said,

For example, a secretary sitting behind a plexiglas shield might simply need to wear an N95 mask. Employees working with health-impaired children could face reassignment.

For those in between – including most teachers – some form of enhanced personalized protective equipment, or PPE, “would be a common accommodation,” Swinyard said.

Vaccinated staff, except for those working with medically fragile students, may continue to wear cloth masks.

The district is currently down 20 full-time employees – those who have left the district in the wake of the mandate – and 80 part-timers whose status has yet to be confirmed.

Now add a bus driver shortage that has afflicted the district since the school year began. On any given day, eight to 12 of the district’s 105 routes are affected by significant delays.

The district recently sent out letters to families to prepare for the possibility that certain routes will be up to two hours late through the end of October.

“That date is an estimate, because we don’t want families to get their hopes up,” Swinyard said.

It’s unclear how many children are directly affected by the late pickups, or how many parents are unable to drive them to school.

However, Swinyard said the district is spreading out the inconvenience “to the greatest extent possible” across the district.

“We didn’t want to impact any area more than others,” Swinyard said.

Unlike most districts in the area, Spokane Public Schools doesn’t own buses. It contracts with Durham for busing services.

Other school districts in the region appear to be coping with the driver shortage.

“We’ve been stretched thin at times, but we haven’t missed any routes,” said Marla Nunberg, communications director for the Central Valley School District.

Help is on the way. Durham has 34 new drivers in training – enough, Swinyard hopes, to fill the routes and leave some margin for illnesses and other factors.

But Durham faces the same wild card as the district: How many more employees will either resign or seek exemptions?

Fiscally, at least, there will be some compensation. According to the district’s contract with Durham, the latter is accountable for filling the contracted routes; if they go unfilled, the district will be reimbursed.

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