Note: This story was updated at 5 p.m. on Oct. 18 to include comments on the vaccine mandate from the school district’s superintendent and general comments from the head of the bus drivers’ union.
Districtwide bus delays that have plagued Peninsula School District since Friday are not related to the state’s vaccine mandate but to a spate of illnesses other than COVID, spokeswoman Aimee Gordon said Monday.
Monday was the deadline for state employees to comply with the mandate to show proof of vaccination, or to request a medical or religious exemption.
The Peninsula School District is experiencing a bus driver shortage. Ed Friedrich / Gig Harbor Now
Superintendent Krestin Bahr on Monday afternoon sent a letter to district employees and families saying the mandate has had little effect on staffing or on Peninsula’s ability to teach students.
“I wanted to update you and let you know the vaccine mandate has had minimal impact on our staffing with no impact to our educational services and programs,” Bahr wrote.
She said the district was regularly in touch with union leaders as the mandate deadline approached. Human resources personnel were available to meet individually with employees to answer questions and provide guidance on the mandate. Information about the mandate timeline, exemption options and vaccine clinics has been widely shared with staff, Bahr said.
Regarding the district’s bus woes, Bahr said, “Like many businesses in our area and across the country, we are experiencing an unprecedented staffing shortage due to the pandemic. This ongoing situation is mainly impacting our transportation department and pool of substitute workers.”
The district, on its Facebook page Friday, reported widespread delays as a result of a driver shortage which, the post said, was an ongoing problem for schools throughout Washington. The statement said the driver shortage was compounded by “the effects of COVID.”
“As a result of the ongoing bus driver shortage impacting our district and many others across the state, we are experiencing multiple delays today, Friday, October 15,” the district stated in the post. “The driver shortage means we need to merge some bus routes and double up on others.”
Delays were expected to impact most routes across the district, including those served by small buses.
“We are contacting schools to excuse late arrivals of students due to bus delays,” the district advised. “Please expect delays after school. If possible, you may want to pick up your student this afternoon to avoid delays.
“The driver shortage is nationwide and affects trucking companies and public transportation, as well as school buses,” the statement read. “The effects of COVID-19 are further impacting our ability to maintain sufficient staffing levels.”
The advisory came as the deadline loomed for state workers to comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate, requiring “all state employees, higher education, childcare, and K-12 education employees, and most health and long-term care providers to be fully vaccinated with a recommended COVID-19 vaccine by October 18, 2021, as a condition of employment.” The state allowed “reasonable accommodation for medical or religious reasons.”
Inslee initially did not include K-12 employees in the state’s vaccine mandate, but announced on Aug. 18, they would be included.
The Facebook post on Monday morning was similarly worded, announcing “multiple delays again today, Monday, October 18.”
In response to an inquiry Monday from Gig Harbor Now as to whether delays were related to the mandate, Gordon said, “No, we actually had sick drivers. There are bugs going around that are not Covid. Sick drivers added to our ongoing shortage is the reason for the message today.”
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She later sent the statement, “Today’s challenges with transportation were the result of the ongoing bus driver shortage and some unexpected, non-Covid related illnesses.”
Bus driver Kristie Matthews, who is also president of the local bus drivers’ union, concurred that absences related to recent illnesses had escalated problems due to the driver shortage. She said most families were understanding about the route changes and delays.
“They were really, really gracious, thanking us for being here and thanking us for showing up,” Matthews said.
Hiring bus drivers has never been easy. Since the onset of the pandemic, it’s become exponentially difficult. Substitutes are needed every day, Matthews said. Office staff and mechanics who are licensed to drive a school bus have been pulled in to help.
“We’re tired,” she said.
Matthews said reasons for the nationwide shortage are complex and, in some cases, hard to pin down. But disruptions to childcare have been a factor for many employees.
Bus drivers work both before school starts and after school lets out. For drivers who are parents, “It’s hard for them to find childcare to accommodate their schedule,” Matthews said.
Peninsula bus drivers recently got a 7.5% raise retroactive to the start of the school year.
Matthews said drivers were generally pleased and the ratification vote was unanimous, still, “Given the extra work we’ve had to do this year, we’d have liked to see more,” she said.
Matthews said the public might have a negative impression of the job of a bus driver because people on social media tend not to comment unless it’s to complain. The vast majority of families she sees day to day are appreciative of drivers. She finds driving a school bus rewarding.
“This is a wonderful job. We have a tremendous amount of responsibility. The kids are amazing. We have a wonderful school district. I wish more people wanted to do the job,” Matthews said.
The district’s Facebook statements on both Friday and Monday concluded with, “We strive, always, to provide an excellent education for each and every student. That includes providing needed transportation to and from school. We are making every effort to minimize the impact of the bus driver shortage on our transportation program. Your patience is appreciated.”
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