By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – Already dealing with a shortage of school bus drivers, South Kitsap School District officials breathed a temporary sigh of relief when they learned this week that only one driver refused to get vaccinated, as required by Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate, and would be let go by SKSD.
However, as officials learned of the good news, they also reported that five bus drivers had resigned for reasons not related to the mandate, adding stress to the school transportation system.
On Aug. 18, Inslee announced that K-12 school employees in Washington state must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have obtained a medical or religious exemption by Oct. 18, as a condition of employment. The mandate is aimed at reducing the potential spread of the virus among staff and students.
“This ended up being much better than we were anticipating,” Jerry McMullen, SKSD director of transportation, said of losing one driver. That driver’s last day will be Oct. 15.
“The [driver] never filed an exemption and elected not to get the vaccination,” McMullen said. The driver has until Friday to file an appeal of the termination.
Several drivers did seek medical or religious exemptions from getting vaccinated and were granted waivers, McMullen said. He estimated 10% of his drivers sought waivers, which were approved. SKSD employs 75 bus drivers to transport students to and from school.
The transportation head was unable to specify how many exemptions were for medical reasons versus religious reasons due to confidentiality reasons.
Drivers who were granted exemptions will need to adhere to several requirements to remain employed, he said. Each will be subject to weekly COVID tests, be required to wear an N95 mask and follow exposure limitations, such as not eating with others when not wearing a mask.
School transportation officials learned in recent days of five other drivers who have resigned for personal reasons. “Some found other employment, others were moving out of the area,” McMullen said.
That brings the total number of bus drivers resigning to six. Prior staffing shortages already led SKSD to reduce the number of district school bus routes from 82 to 70. Factoring in the recent loss of drivers, the district will have approximately 70 drivers to handle 70 routes. That leaves little room for approved absences by drivers.
“We have substitute drivers available to us, but they are not always available when we need them,” the director said.
The district is tasked with transporting 9,000 students daily to the area’s 15 schools using a fleet of 99 school buses. School officials have received a number of new applicants for driver positions. But training for new drivers begins in two weeks, and lasts four to six weeks.
“We could be looking at having some new drivers available to us around Thanksgiving,” McMullen said. “It’s going to be a very challenging year until we get some folks in here.”