Seemingly like most everything else when it comes to addressing the new novel coronavirus, the fate of whether school bus drivers stay on district or company payrolls remains a local decision based on economics as much or more so than safety. Media reports nationwide are calling attention to the fate of school bus drivers, as many districts don’t require traditional pupil transportation services right now amid starting the new school year virtually.
Harmony Weinberg, a spokeswoman for a district in Washington state, shared that the recent decision to layoff all 175 of the district’s school bus drivers wasn’t taken lightly. “The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the Edmonds School District in many ways since this spring,” Weinberg told School Transportation News. “We are heartbroken that we will not be teaching and learning in-person as we start the 2020-2021 school year. Not only does this cause stress and unknowns for students and their families, it also creates other challenges to our entire school system, including our transportation department.”
She added that because the district will not be transporting students on school buses until in-person learning takes place, and due to reductions in state funding, the district was forced to implement bus driver layoffs. Weinberg explained that some students will be receiving individualized transportation, as part of their individual education plans. She added that some school bus drivers will be recalled within the next couple of weeks to perform that required transportation service.
“Funding for transportation is based on student ridership,” Weinberg said. “When ridership falls, funding falls. And unfortunately, until we can transport students again, funding to pay drivers is not an option.”
Alice Independent School District in Texas is, as some districts are, utilizing its school bus drivers during remote learning. Transportation Supervisor Daniel Galvan said the district started school on Sept. 8 and will go virtual for at least the first month, with the possibility of remaining online for another month.
He said his part-time school bus drivers will have the option to assist in the maintenance department, while the full-time transportation staff will have other duties in the meantime. He said that the drivers who choose not to transition into maintenance for the time being and instead choose to remain home during online education, will not get paid.
When schools do open up again for in-person education, districts hope to provide a full transportation program, as usual. But that could be a challenge amid the ongoing driver shortage that has been exacerbated by fears about returning to work and, at least up until last month, additional weekly unemployment benefits that exceeded their normal salaries.