Portland’s superintendent is telling families to prepare for the possible cancellation of some daily school bus runs for middle and elementary school students as the district continues to struggle with a bus driver shortage.

“We are telling families now so that you can start thinking about alternate ways, such as carpooling, to get your students to and from school if their bus is offline for a day,” Xavier Botana wrote in a letter to families Sunday. “I can assure you that we also are actively working on developing contingency plans.”

Bus driver shortages have been a problem for schools nationwide, but the problem has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic for a number of reasons, including more older drivers deciding to retire rather than risk exposure to the virus.

“The shortage of bus drivers is a longstanding national issue, and one that Maine communities are also working to solve in the midst of a massive workforce shortage that is impacting all industries in our state,” Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education, said in an email.

“While not new, the bus driver shortage has been made worse by the pandemic, when more drivers were required in order to reduce the number of students on buses and when drivers have had to quarantine after being a close contact.”

Gov. Janet Mills’ administration is aware of the challenges, Deveaux said, and on Monday the governor’s office met with the department, the Maine secretary of state, the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation and district transportation officials from across Maine to discuss potential solutions.

The department is continuing to promote the importance of bus drivers and the role they play in the education system, and Maine schools are continuing to offer paid training, sign-on bonuses and other incentives, and in some cases are using federal relief funds to try to market and fill positions. “We will continue to work closely with school districts across Maine in the coming days and weeks to seek creative and safe solutions,” Deveaux said.

In August, for example, the Scarborough district was offering a $3,000 sign-on bonus, Gorham was offering $2,000 and Kennebunk-based Regional School Unit 21 was offering a $1,500 bonus.

Some communities outside Maine have taken more drastic action. Several Massachusetts communities brought in members of the National Guard to drive school buses after a driver shortage disrupted bus runs in the first weeks of the school year.

Portland now has 26 bus drivers while a full roster would consist of 29 drivers, Botana said. Two of the current drivers are out on extended sick leave, however, and another two are trainees who can’t drive alone. The district is offering bonuses and incentives to try to hire more people, and the district transportation director and transportation operations manager are driving buses daily to try to meet the need.

Diane Aceto waits to pick up schoolchildren at King Middle School at the end of the school day Monday. She has been a school bus driver in the area since 1998, and in Portland for the last four years. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

TRYING TO ATTRACT DRIVERS

As of last month, Portland was 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.

Neither Botana nor communications officials in the district responded to requests for more information Monday, including questions about whether the district has had to cancel any bus runs yet or whether additional incentives are being offered.

According to the letter, the shortage has left the district without backup options and if drivers call out sick this fall, the district would have to cancel routes for the time they’re out.

Portland Public Schools has 24 buses and manages more than 60 routes each day with almost every bus doing three distinct runs per day serving three different schools. Fifteen buses are used to transport students with disabilities.

The district will continue to prioritize special education transportation in order to minimize disruptions for those most vulnerable students and if cancellations become necessary, the plan would be that it would impact the nine buses that serve regular education students, Botana said.

The buses would be placed in a queue and if cancellation is necessary, the first bus in the queue would be canceled that day and resume the next day while the second bus is taken offline. That process would continue throughout the queue. Placement of the buses in the queue would be determined by the number of students each bus carries and the impact on island students.

Portland has already had to cut back on transportation to after-school sports and extracurricular activities in order to prioritize bus runs to get students to and from school.

CARPOOLING ONE ALTERNATIVE

The district is encouraging families to think about carpooling and is exploring alternatives such as arranging for school volunteers to be available for carpooling or making METRO bus passes available to middle school students who don’t have other options. School staff are also working to provide support to students who may not be able to find ways to get to school on a particular day due to a lack of transportation.

Around Maine, other school districts also are trying to get creative to solve bus driver shortages, but challenges persist given the requirements and amount of time it can take to train a new driver, said Michelle Caron, president of the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation and director of transportation in the Brunswick School Department.

“It’s not only school bus drivers but commercial drivers as well,” Caron said. “Across the United States, people are hanging up banners and giving referral bonuses and sign-on bonuses and it’s still not enough.”

Brunswick isn’t currently short on any bus route drivers but is facing a shortage of substitute drivers, who are often used to transport students to sporting events. “They’re either already driving or covering for someone who’s out so that trip may not go that day or I may have a mechanic cover it,” Caron said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure (students) are where they need to go and they can play their sports, but sometimes we are hampered by the amount of sub drivers we have.”

In Cumberland-based School Administrative District 51, Superintendent Jeff Porter said the district hasn’t had to cancel any runs this year but is preemptively offering a free bus driver training class to start Nov. 1 in order to avoid the complications shortages present.

The district has opened the class up to other area school districts if they want to participate and so far has 19 people signed up. “We certainly would like to retain some of the trainees but we know many will also return to their home towns to drive, which is fine,” Porter said in an email. “It addresses the whole shortage we all are experiencing.”

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