The school districts in Washoe County and Carson City are dealing with bus driver shortages ahead of the first day of school. Report for America’s Jose Davila IV sat down with KUNR’s Michelle Billman to break everything down.
Michelle Billman: So what is the transportation problem facing these two districts this school year?
Jose Davila IV: Basically, both districts are facing a shortage of qualified bus drivers on staff. Big factors region-wide include low unemployment rates and lingering pandemic effects. Specifically, especially in Washoe County, there is a lack of drivers with commercial driver’s licenses and people who want to work with kids. In addition, low salaries and poor retention rates are leading to the shortages. In fact, even the charter companies in the area are struggling.
In addition, training [for new hires] takes about three to five weeks in Washoe County. Now, the Washoe County School District has hired about 33 new hires over the summer, so even though there are those new drivers, they won’t necessarily be out on the road for another month or so.
Billman: How is Washoe County School District handling or planning for this shortage?
Davila: Let’s hear from the district’s chief operating officer Adam Searcy as he explains how the district is moving forward.
(SOUNDBITE FROM ADAM SEARCY): We need to be clear with the public that we will have to begin the 22-23 school year on the area rotation calendar, but for a variety of reasons, not the least of which what we’ve just been discussing: our recruitment and retention efforts and the positive progress that we’ve been making in recent weeks, we do anticipate being able to return the entire district to a hub system by fall break.
Davila: Now, let’s break that down. The district will be using the same schedule as it did for the end of last year. Basically, the district will be broken into four zones, and each week, one zone will not receive service.
Due to hiring trends and training time, the district thinks they can move back to the hub model of service by fall break, which means most of these zones will see two weeks of no service. As more drivers come online, the district will prioritize areas with the most need.
Some groups will not be impacted by these cuts, and they will receive service as the school year gets underway: Students in special education services with transportation components, Academy of Arts, Careers, and Technology and Wooster High International Baccalaureate students, and students living in outlying areas like Natchez and Antelope Valley.
Billman: Over in Carson City, that school district is facing a very similar problem. In fact, last January, the district abruptly had to cut off bus services for a handful of days. How is Carson City approaching this issue?
Davila: Officials are taking a different approach in the capital. The district is increasing the walking zones from two miles to two-and-a-half miles for middle and high school students and consolidating some routes at elementary, middle school and high school levels.
Billman: Got it. What are some of the possible solutions that the districts are examining at this point?
Davila: Well, there are a couple of different things they’re looking at. Both districts have instituted hiring bonuses for new drivers — those are $2,000. The Washoe County School District increased pay for drivers this summer. District officials say that’s helping with shortages, not only for drivers but also in other areas of the district.
WCSD has also contracted four charter buses for middle and high school transportation; however, they could only procure four buses because of staffing shortages at the charter bus companies. They are also transitioning some employees with existing certifications into driver roles like some mechanics, which may result in longer times to get buses and other vehicles fixed for the district if they break down. Finally, in Washoe County, they are conducting a third-party efficiency study, looking at how efficient the routes are and seeing if they can get more kids onto routes.
Billman: Given the severity of the situation, what can parents do to help make sure that their kids can get to school?
Davila: Both districts are encouraging parents to check their websites to see if their routes and schedules have changed.
In Washoe County, the district is offering payment to parents who drive their children to school on days when no buses run in their zones. Parents are only eligible for reimbursements if they are zoned for bus service, though. Parents are asked to fill out a mileage reimbursement form found on the transportation office website within 30 days after the start of their week of no service.
However, on days with no service, there will be more congestion in and around those schools with more parent traffic, so the district is asking parents to drive carefully.
Here’s Washoe County School Board President Angie Taylor with her concerns about this area rotation plan and getting children to school.
(SOUNDBITE FROM ANGELA TAYLOR): Kids don’t get to go to school every day. There are very few things in my tenure on the board that have kept me up, and this is one of them. We do kids. We do education. We can’t do them if they aren’t there.
Davila: To partially work around that concern, the district is encouraging parents to reach out to their kids’ teachers for makeup work when they are not able to get to school. There will not be an option for digital learning in these instances.
Billman: You’ve also been reporting on other shortages within the Washoe County School District. Could you walk me through those other areas?
Davila: For sure, the district is facing labor shortages in the classroom, the cafeteria and the janitor’s closet. On the first day of school, the district will have 87 teacher vacancies that it hopes to fill with long-term subs, paid interns and retirees. It was already forced to move some teacher support staff back into the classroom. Due to shortages in housekeeping, vacuuming in middle and high schools will only happen once a week this year.
Recent summer hiring and better staff retention in both housekeeping and nutrition services have cut down the vacancies in both areas. District officials say that’s due to the pay increases.