Portland schools are struggling to transport students to athletic games and co-curricular activities in other districts during a bus driver shortage that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The school district is down four full-time bus drivers and five bus assistant positions in a transportation department that normally has a staff of 48.

“As a result of the severe shortage of bus drivers both in the district and with our contract vendors and our school schedules, we are experiencing extreme difficulties in providing transportation for our co-curricular teams to attend out-of-district events,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said in a letter to families last week.

Transportation is being prioritized to first meet the needs of varsity athletic teams, followed by junior varsity and middle school activities. “Our co-curricular directors will notify you with as much time as possible when we are not able to provide district transportation for a scheduled out-of-district trip,” Botana said. “We will continue to look for ways to meet our transportation needs, and apologize for the difficulties this places on you and your student.”

Bus driver shortages have been a longstanding problem for schools nationwide that has gotten worse during the pandemic because many older drivers decided to retire rather than be exposed to the virus. The pandemic also has demanded more drivers because districts are using more buses to minimize the number of students on each bus and need to cover for those who end up in quarantine.

Portland schools implemented new start and dismissal times for students this year, but a district spokeswoman said the new schedule has had minimal impact on the difficulties around getting students to games and competitions. School day transportation remains the district’s priority and it has not been affected, Tess Nacelewicz, communications coordinator for Portland Public Schools, said in an email.

Asked if any games have had to be canceled due to transportation staff shortages, Nacelewicz said transportation challenges “have impacted co-curricular scheduling and some activities.”

Louis Torrieri, whose son plays tennis at King Middle School, said a match last week was canceled due to lack of transportation. “I do get it,” Torrieri said. “I get the short staff piece, it’s just frustration. It’s not a lack of planning because I guess they couldn’t plan for it, but it’s just not fun.”

He’s hoping that if the district can get the word out about transportation staff shortages, the community may be able to come up with some creative solutions. “I want them to keep trying to figure it out,” Torrieri said. “These kids deserve it. They’re trying to get back to somewhat normal.”

Chronic staffing shortages have worsened in a variety of industries, not just schools, during the pandemic. On Monday city officials said they are considering raising wages for some municipal employees because they can’t find enough people to work in the city’s nursing home, child care programs and public works department.

Some school districts around Maine have been offering financial incentives to attract bus drivers. Over the summer, Scarborough was offering a $3,000 sign-on bonus and Gorham was offering $2,000.

Portland is offering sign-on bonuses ranging from $500 to $1,000 depending on a driver’s qualifications, referral bonuses of $250 to $500 for Portland school employees who bring in new drivers and $250 training bonuses for district bus drivers who mentor or assist a bus driver trainee in obtaining the necessary licensing credentials.

The district also raised its minimum pay for bus drivers to $17.99 per hour in 2019 and made most of its bus driver positions year-round, 40 hours-per-week positions to help it attract long-term employees.

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