A shortage of school bus drivers is causing the Aberdeen and Hoquiam school districts to combine routes and, in many cases, take other staff away from its assigned duties to fill the gaps.
It’s at the point, school administrators warn, that if more drivers can’t be found and even one or two more drivers were lost, there could be days with some bus route delays and even cancellations.
The school year started off with a shortage of workers across the board in Hoquiam, said Superintendent Mike Villarreal.
“We’ve been lacking in positions across the board — teachers, custodial and maintenance workers, and on top of that, transportation,” he said. “We were able to launch, you know, get off the ground, but it’s caused a stress across the system, whether it’s teaching, getting the buildings cleaned, and even getting our kids to school.”
School buses in the Aberdeen and Hoquiam districts are run as a cooperative, housed in Hoquiam. In charge is Transportation Supervisor Ernie Lott, who would normally oversee, at full capacity, 17 drivers in Aberdeen and 11 in Hoquiam.
Because of the shortage, the normal 11 routes in Hoquiam is down to nine.
Like a lot of other districts we’ve been combining routes in both districts,” said Villarreal, with drivers dropping out of the picture fairly regularly.
“I just lost two people last week and one the week before,” said Lott. Villarreal said between the two districts, “there are eight open bus routes that need to be filled, and that’s just a minimum to kind of get us back on float.”
Lott and his mechanics have their CDL licenses so they can cover when needed. Often, they do. Lott drove a route Monday morning. That keeps him away from doing his main job, challenging enough at this time, trying to keep the buses flowing with too few drivers to do it. It also takes time away from the mechanics’ jobs, maintaining buses not only for Aberdeen and Hoquiam but other districts in the region.
“They’re doing a morning route or an evening route, and maybe even some midday routes to cover, and we’re really at the point now where we can’t do that,” said Villarreal. “If somebody else goes down, we’re talking about delayed routes; maybe we run around and pick up kids, and the next route goes out and picks them up and they start an hour, two hours late.”
If the driver shortage becomes too critical to do that, even more drastic steps may have to be taken.
“We could say, hey, this route, we’re not picking you up,” said Villarreal. “And everybody on this route, we tell the parents, you need to bring your kids in today.”
Both Villarreal and Aberdeen Superintendent Alicia Henderson recognize the importance of the return of in-person teaching after last year’s online model, and both praised Lott for his ability to work with what he has to get the kids to school.
“We are very grateful that our students can be in school, in person,” said Henderson. “And we all have confidence that our transportation department is doing everything it can to provide the best possible service to our students and families. They have been amazing.”
Henderson warned that should a need arise to cut certain routes due to lack of drivers, the lead time notification would be short, similar to how the alerts for snow days are delivered.
“It’s impossible to know in advance what a delay or cancellation will look like,” said Henderson. “As with a weather delay, the decision will be made the night before or as soon as possible in the morning.”
The first notice would be sent via the FlashAlert emergency notification system. Parents and guardians of students who ride the bus should plan to check their email or text alerts in the evenings and first thing each morning.
The transportation district is aggressively recruiting drivers to fill the gaps, as are most across the state. Villarreal said the district is willing to provide the CDL training: “We’ve got good trainers and I’d like to believe we’re a good district to work for,” he said.
Lott noted it’s a good job for those who have their own kids enrolled in school.
“It’s a good job for parents or mothers whose kids are in school that works with their schedule, to have a morning shift, have the middle of the day off if they want, and work in the afternoon,” he said.
People can find a link to apply for bus driver and mechanic jobs with the districts at hoquiam.net/page/transportation.