By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – A shortage of South Kitsap School District bus drivers has resulted in fewer bus routes, inconsistent pick-up and drop-off times, and cases of overcrowded buses at a time when COVID-19 rates among students have spiked in the county.
Heading into the school year, SKSD officials predicted there would be driver shortages and, as a result, reduced the number of bus routes by nearly 9%.
“We are operating about 70 routes right now,” Jerry McMullen, SKSD director of transportation, said. “Normally, we would be doing about 82.” If district administration officials had to ability to instantly fill those staff requirements, they would hire an additional 15 drivers, McMullen said.
“We still service the entire district. All the kids are getting picked up as they should. It’s just the routes that we are operating have more kids on them than normal and kids might be riding the bus longer.”
“We don’t expect to see the crisis [here] that, say, the Seattle School District is going through where kids are waiting for hours for buses to show up. We don’t anticipate that happening here at South Kitsap.”
Crowded buses, delays
Having fewer routes is causing problems that concern parents, such as packed buses and delayed schedules.
Oddly, while physical distancing is the standard practice for most people, such as waiting in line at the store or coffee shop, the health directive does not apply to school buses.
“There is not a social distancing minimum on a bus, so the buses are going to be full in most cases,” McMullen said. “Some parents are not comfortable with that. They have concerns [about] COVID and don’t want the kids on the bus in close proximity.”
COVID cases among school-age children in Kitsap County have risen dramatically in recent months, according to statistics from the Kitsap County Health District. For those 11 and younger, the rate of COVID cases per 100,000 individuals has increased from 76 on July 3 to 866 on Sept. 11. For those in the 12-to-18 age category, the cases rose from 106 on July 3 to 1,089 on Sept. 11.
Health concerns associated with shoulder-to-shoulder bus rides have led to a number of parents pulling their children off school buses and instead are driving them to school, the transportation head said.
Having more parents transporting students to classes has resulted in another problem.
More family cars coming to school entrances have created additional traffic congestion in school parking lots and has made it difficult on the school bus system, McMullen said.
“Buses are being stuck in lines trying to get to the schools and then back out, so it’s creating delays along the way,” he said.
Roads at schools are designed to accommodate buses rather than a line of family cars, he added. The delays mean school bus pick-up and drop-off times are disrupted, further frustrating parents.
The school district operates a fleet of 99 yellow school buses to transport 9,000 students each day to 15 schools, the director said. Approximately 75 drivers are currently used to transport students to and from schools.
Obstacles to getting more drivers
Driver work schedules are not for everyone.
“A bus driver is a very unique niche,” McMullen said. “Your six-and-a-half to seven-hour day consists of morning pick-ups, then you have a four-hour break and you come back in the [afternoon] to pick kids up. That works wonderfully for some folks, but most people are looking for full-time work with overtime opportunities. That’s not the typical bus driver situation,” he explained.
In addition, the district faces stiff competition for drivers from higher-paying, behind-the-wheel positions offered by regional and long-haul trucking and delivery operations like Amazon, McMullen said.
To attract applicants, the district is running employment ads and has placed help-wanted banners around the district.
Starting pay for school drivers is $25.54 an hour; part-time wages begin at $22.99. Candidates are required to have a commercial driver’s license and pass a physical exam, criminal background check, and drug and alcohol testing.