School bus drivers in short supply across Colorado as in-person instruction begins

If the shortage of bus drivers for public schools across Colorado was a problem before the pandemic, it’s at a critical level now. And it’s not one that can be solved with cash, said Albert Samora, Denver Public School’s executive director of transportation.

“We’re at the worst state of transportation I’ve ever seen in an 18-year career,” Samora said of his district. “Unless this improves, we’re going to have to make some really hard decisions in the future.”

Not only are tighter-than-normal school budgets at play across the state, but so too is the political divide brought on by masking and vaccine requirements. While medical experts say the coronavirus mitigation strategies make buses safer for students — and lament the lack of an overarching mandate from state health officials — districts are seeing attrition, existing bus drivers quitting and a smaller pool of applicants for prospective drivers.

Hanging in the balance are tens of thousands of students who need to get to and from school. DPS alone transports about 20,000 of them each day, Samora said.

So far, DPS routes have been consolidated but not cut.

“Not yet,” Samora added. “I say that cautiously.”

Short on drivers

Bus drivers are in short supply across the U.S., with Education Week reporting in May that it could take three months or more for a majority of school districts with between 25,000 and 100,000 students to resume normal operations.

Older drivers or those with preexisting medical conditions aren’t returning to work and others switched to private-sector jobs to avoid furloughs or job cuts during the pandemic when schools went remote, Education Week reported.

In Colorado, aside from Denver, multiple districts in the Colorado Springs area are having the same problem, as well as Boulder, Douglas, Larimer and Weld counties.

Colorado Springs School District 11, the largest in the Colorado Springs metro, always has a hard time finding drivers, spokeswoman Devra Ashby said, and it has continued during the pandemic. The district typically buses up to 9,000 students each day. So far, though, it’s been able to provide rides to all students who need them, she said.

“It’s very reminiscent of last year, where things could change on a dime,” Ashby said.

Driver positions aren’t always a full-time deal and not all of them will receive benefits like health insurance, Samora said — and that was causing the shortage before the pandemic. Then existing drivers began to retire in greater numbers, some for medical reasons, some for personal or political reasons.

RESOURCEList of Denver-area school mask requirements

Others who were under retirement age also left — in protest of masking or vaccination requirements — and the applicant pools shrank for the same reasons.

“This is not just a money issue. If I went to my boss tomorrow and said ‘$1 million would fix this problem,’ I think DPS would find that money,” Samora said.

He’ll start the school year on Aug. 23 with about 170 drivers — about 90 too few. In emergencies, he’ll dispatch crew members that aren’t drivers but do hold the required commercial drivers’ licenses. So far, he hasn’t had to drive a route himself (he also holds a CDL).

“But there have been times when I’ve been the last person in the building,” he said.

Douglas County School District is short, too, and it’s been exacerbated in the past 18 months, Director of Transportation Donna Grattino said. In a district that started on Aug. 9, the 185 drivers are about 40 fewer than needed to shuttle an average of 11,000 daily riders.

Like DPS, Grattino said she hasn’t had to cut any routes, but she has had to consolidate them into “fewer stops and longer routes.”

Varying requirements

Politics aside, the federal mandate for masks on public transportation (which ends Sept. 13 unless extended) and Mayor Michael Hancock’s vaccine requirement for city and school employees further complicates things, Samora said.

“It happened at a terrible time for us, right at the beginning of school, when we were hoping some people were going to come back,” he said.

Masks will be required on DPS buses and in schools. Drivers will also keep bus windows down as weather permits, Samora said, and disinfect often.

Drivers for Colorado Springs District 11 will operate similarly, Ashby said, but masks won’t be required in school buildings. To the north, Colorado Springs District 49, which covers Falcon, has a similar discrepancy where masks are required on buses but not school buildings, Chief Education Officer Peter Hilts said.

Ultimately, he said, parents are responsible for their children.

“We are a school district, not an enforcement agency, so we acknowledge external directives, but we will not force any individual to comply,” Hilts said.

Dr. Sonja O’Leary, chair of the Council on School Health for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said sanitizing bus seats, driving with the windows down and social distancing can help, but they’re much less effective without vaccines and masks.

“We’re not trying to say we’re going to mask forever, but let’s start with what we know is safe, with what worked last year and what we know works and then we can go from there,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary, who practices in Denver, also acknowledged that keeping track of public health requirements can be difficult when they vary widely between cities and districts.

“It would be nice for the state to have an overarching mandate,” O’Leary said. “That would make things a lot simpler for families and for school districts.”

Gov. Jared Polis said Thursday that parents shouldn’t expect a statewide school mask mandate — like the one that expired July 1 — unless Colorado’s hospitals are at risk of becoming overwhelmed. Instead, his administration is encouraging everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated.

Grattino said she’d welcome overarching guidance from the state, as would other districts.

“We just want to do the best for the kiddos,” Grattino said. “We’re so happy that they’re back on the buses. That’s really the focus. I’m just glad we’re back to school.”

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