Peninsula School District warns parents of temporary bus route cancelations
Editor’s note: The Peninsula School District will offer excused absences and tardies to students delayed by bus route cancelations. An earlier version of this story misstated that fact.
The Peninsula School District warned parents on Tuesday that as of Wednesday morning, their child’s bus route could be canceled for the day. They’d be notified by 5:30 a.m. if that were the case.
Special needs buses will not be canceled as their routes are federally mandated.
The district, like others across the nation, faces a shortage of bus drivers, forcing consolidation of some routes. Peninsula School District is one of the last local districts to consider route cancelations, according to Dawnett Wright, director of transportation.
“Up to this point, we have performed miracles to transport our students. We are continuously recruiting and training new drivers,” Wright said.
The district would only cancel routes if it can not find substitute drivers, and there have been no cancelations yet. Wright said the district wanted to give parents a heads up so they could be ready with a back-up plan.
“Please know we do not take this decision lightly and we understand the impact this will have on our students and families,” said a letter to families from the transportation department to parents and staff.
Cancelations more likely after break
Peninsula cited “routine absences from seasonal illness” as the reason for “possible upcoming temporary bus route cancelation,” according to the transportation department letter.
The district runs a daily 7 percent average absentee rate because of illness. “There have been days we’ve had up to 19 percent of bus drivers out in a single day,” Wright said.
“We believe we will be fine until the (winter) break,” she added. “It is after the break we have drivers who are resigning or retiring, so we anticipate feeling the squeeze. We wanted to communicate in advance so that families could make plans.”
While seasonal illness plays its role, the chronic national driver shortage is due to a lack of qualified applicants who want to drive a school bus, Wright said. “Almost all schools in the nation are facing the same shortage of bus drivers.”
Route cancelations will apply to both morning and afternoon, so if your childrens’ morning pickup is canceled the bus won’t bring them home, either. All other bus routes servicing schools with canceled routes will run normally as scheduled, according to the district. If your student is late or misses class, this will be considered an excused tardy/absence.
“Families impacted should plan alternate transportation for their students,” the district’s letter says.
Otherwise, there won’t be any changes to the school day or other scheduled activities. Parents should to check with their student’s school or teacher with questions about school-related activities.
Which routes will be canceled?
The district routinely assesses which routes can be covered based on driver availability. So far this year, they’ve had to consolidate runs once. Students were dropped off at one school, and the driver went out again to pick up another route, meaning those students were late. Same thing in reverse going home.
Canceling a run would be a strategy of last resort, Wright said. Her department will try to make sure the same route is not continuously affected by cancelations.
“In order to remain equitable and not disrupt the same students on a daily basis, it will be important to assess which routes have drivers that are out each day and determine where the least impact will be felt,” she said.
If absences force a cancelation, the department would let parents know the night before if possible. But often they don’t have advance notice.
“Our office opens at 5 a.m., which gives us less than 30 minutes to assess sick calls for the day and call in our back-up drivers to try to cover the route,” Wright said. “Again, we are trying to maintain equity by not impacting the same students daily. The likelihood is that we would not need to cancel routes daily, yet only when absolutely necessary.”
Parents in a bind
People in one local Facebook group reacted with alarm to the district’s advisory.
“Canceled in both the morning and afternoon. That is a HUGE impact on families,” said one person posting in the group. “Letting people know at 5 a.m. the day of (by 5:30 a.m., per the district) presents another challenge for making arrangements. … Not everyone works traditional hours. This is just WOW.”
Another person called out the extra burden on families who live in rural areas like the Key Peninsula.
“We live along (Key Peninsula Highway),” they said. “I hope they prioritize KP as we are considered rural and there isn’t a sidewalk to get to school walking. … I can’t quit my job (or) get to work late or leave early.”
This poster suggested students whose routes are canceled should be able to access classes via Zoom, like during the pandemic. “This is kind of an emergency of sorts, too.”
District recruiting drivers
As a sign of the times, the Transportation Department’s office staff are all trained school bus drivers and are on the road “almost daily, leaving their duties uncovered,” Wright said.
Peninsula School District will continue its campaign to hire full-time and part-time drivers, along with subs. Experience is not required and the district provides paid training.
Bus drivers received a 7.5 percent raise under a contract approved in 2021. The starting salary for a regular bus driver is $24.09 per hour. The top of the scale is $31.28 per hour. Substitute drivers make between $21.68 and $23.85 per hour. The contract will be up for renewal in August.
The district this fall introduced the MyRide app that allows parents to track their child on the bus via badges scanned as they get on and off. The badges, which are optional for families who want them, were introduced at Swift Water Elementary, and the district planned to roll them out to all other schools over the course of this year.
Contact the Transportation Department at (253) 530-3900.