The yellow school bus is an iconic symbol of public education. But those vehicles would have no meaning without the people behind the wheel: school bus drivers.

Whitmer Courtesy / Portland Public Schools

Our bus drivers typically are the very first Portland Public Schools staff that many of our students encounter as kindergartners. And each day, as they transport students in all kinds of weather, bus drivers are the first to greet our kids each morning, and the last to wave them safely off the bus to their homes.

In short, our hard-working, dedicated bus drivers are ambassadors of our schools. They are on the front line – and never more so than during this pandemic.

I’m writing a series of columns featuring members of our outstanding PPS staff – and this month I’m focusing on one of our valued bus drivers: Laura Whitmer. Laura, who transports Ocean Avenue Elementary School and Lincoln Middle School students, has been on the job just 10 months, but she exemplifies the best qualities of our drivers. She’s also fast building a student fan base.

Here’s more about Laura:

Tell us about yourself and becoming a bus driver.
I was born and raised in Portland. I worked in retail for nearly 30 years but I needed a change and the opportunity came up. I applied, interviewed and was hired in March.

What about driving a bus appealed to you?
I had thought about it for about the past 10 years. Some acquaintances are bus drivers and they said it’s a good job. The biggest vehicle I had driven before was my husband’s pickup, but I was like: I can do this. It was rewarding to study and take the permit test and the road test and get my license. I was pretty darn proud of myself! I love children. I have two grandchildren, who live in Cumberland and take the bus there. I love seeing all the different kids. They’re just so grateful when you pick them up and you take them home.

How has COVID-19 changed the job?
I started three days before our schools shut down, when I rode with different drivers, learning routes and the ropes, like securing wheelchairs. With COVID, a lot of things changed. There are a lot more protocols for cleaning with a lot more time involved and you’re wearing masks and gloves. All summer long, I rode with another bus driver delivering school lunches to families who couldn’t make it to the meal sites. I was the one running the lunches out to the homes we stopped at. It was worth it, making sure that the kids had their meals.

Do masks for bus drivers and students impact communication?
In the beginning, it was tough. It was hard for some students to understand me and me to understand them, but we’ve built a relationship. We’re all good now. They know the protocols for getting on the bus – they have to use the hand sanitizer and wear their masks. They’re really good about keeping their masks on.

What do you enjoy about being a bus driver?
It’s rewarding. The kids are very thankful. One day, while cleaning the bus, I found a note where a girl was sitting that explained who she was and thanked me for bringing her home every day. I have it at the front of my bus on a little magnetic clip so she can see that I appreciate it. One little boy gave me a little paper flower. I have that hanging there in the front of my bus. It’s sweet.

Xavier Botana is the superintendent of Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at [email protected]

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