Employee shortages alter bus schedules

Jillian Sinder, Staff Writer

Shira Ehrlich (10) arrived at her bus stop at 7:25 last month in preparation for her bus to come at 7:30. She waited and waited for the bus to come, but it never did.
“We’re thinking, ‘What’s happening? Are we going to get to school?’” Ehrlich said. “Some of our parents aren’t home to drive us to school so if the bus doesn’t come, what are we going to do?”
Ehrlich said that for three days in a row, the bus didn’t come to her stop. After parents called and complained, the transportation department eventually figured it out.
Coming back to in-person school is a big change for everyone, students and staff alike. Now that schools are back open, the district is having difficulty finding employees, leading to short staffing throughout the district.
PUSD Board Clerk Darshana Patel said some employees don’t want to return to work after the pandemic because of safety concerns or an unwillingness to follow the guidelines.
“Regulations around masking and vaccination have cut both ways into people’s comfort with working within the school system,” Patel said. “Some don’t want to adhere to mandatory masking or vaccination policies, while others have anxiety around lack of high-fidelity adherence to the mandates and the increased risk that brings to their own health and well-being.”
During the 2020-21 school year, bus drivers and other former staff members who were jobless due to school closures were still receiving income because of unemployment benefits. Now, those payments have ended, yet the district is still struggling to find staff, down eight bus drivers and 20 substitute teachers.
“Some cites extended and enhanced unemployment benefits, keeping potential job-seekers out of the job market,” Patel said. “However, there is growing evidence that, now that federal extended benefits have expired, there is not the expected flood of applicants employers hoped for.”
Despite tremendous effort, PUSD is still struggling to find staff like substitute teachers and bus drivers. Before the school year began, this heightened concern about whether schools would be able to function normally without the necessary staff. Patel said bus drivers play an essential role in the school district, so Poway Unified is trying everything it can to ensure that staffing needs are met.

“We have principals, hiring managers, and district office personnel coordinating recruitment fairs with sometimes having few or no potential employee candidates coming through their virtual rooms,” Patel said. “This is very demoralizing for sure and increases anxiety district wide on whether we can fulfill staffing needs.”
PUSD’s Assistant Director of Transportation Anton Lotter said that the range of skills necessary to be a school bus driver is very extensive. Drivers must exhibit exceptional customer service and behavioral support skills, making acceptable applicants hard to come by.
The certification process is an extremely long one, which can be difficult for candidates that need a paycheck as soon as possible.
“PUSD school bus drivers are trained by our own professional State Certified Drivers Instructors,” Lotter said. “The background checks, training, and certification of a school bus driver can take up to two months, delaying the start of remuneration for successful candidates, which can be an insurmountable hardship for some candidates.”
Because the district is struggling so much to find bus drivers, they’ve needed to cut down on the number of routes more than they ever have before.
“Overall, this year, exclusively due to driver shortages, PUSD transportation has eliminated 15 routes,” Lotter said.
Though 15 routes may not seem like a lot, student bus riders have been impacted by the loss of bus drivers.
Ehrlich takes the bus to and from school each day. She said the crowded buses could pose an issue in regard to the spread of COVID-19.
“When the buses are disorganized, they have to pile a lot of kids in,” Ehrlich said. “When you’re sitting three to a seat, everything is completely crowded, people are in the aisles and there’s no space between anyone, so even though we all have masks on, I think it could be dangerous.”
Most people pay to take the bus because their parents can’t drive them, so with a reduced number of bus routes, problems can arise.
Despite these challenges, Patel said the district is finding ways to overcome them.
“We have administrators covering for vacant positions, and existing staff taking on a greater share of the workload,” Patel said. “While that has been a real adjustment for staff and students, it shows that our district continues to do all that we can to provide safe, in-person teaching and learning for our students as a top priority.”