Families are scrambling after the Anchorage School District announced last week that thousands of students will be left without bus service for more than a month as a severe driver shortage prompts widespread route suspensions.
For parents who work or live far from school, this means impossible, frustrating and expensive decisions — from additional child care, to longer work days, to what will likely be exorbitant amounts of money spent on gas this school year.
District officials last week said that families would receive bus service for three weeks at a time, and then have no service for six weeks, on a rotating basis. The district has enough drivers so students in special education can still take buses, but the district has only 45 drivers to cover 116 general education routes. Other Alaska school districts are dealing with similar challenges — the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District have both also announced changes to routes due to driver shortages.
“I understand the rotating bus route service is a burden on families,” ASD superintendent Jharrett Bryantt told families last week, calling the suspensions “a temporary solution.”
Kristi Naval, who lives in Chugiak, said finding out about the bus suspensions was “unsettling.”
“Here we are, the week before school starts and it felt like it was little bit of a bomb dropped on me,” Naval said.
She has home-schooled her kids since the start of the pandemic but planned to send them back to in-person schooling this year. Naval said if she can’t figure out a solution soon, she’s considering sticking to home school.
Naval works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., commuting into the city from Chugiak. She immediately wondered how she could get an Chugiak Elementary school student and Chugiak High School student, with schools that start an hour apart, dropped off each day for six weeks.
“It’s very, very frustrating,” Naval said.
Naval opted to sign up for after-school care for her elementary schooler, though that will cost several hundred dollars more each month. And despite free People Mover service for middle and high school students, there’s no route in Chugiak, she said, leaving her in another bind for her older child. Naval posted to Facebook in a neighborhood group, asking if parents were in the same boat and to see about some carpooling options.
“I don’t really want to put my kids in some other stranger’s car, but what else options do I have?” she asked.
Patrick Agpaoa is faced with a similar quandary about how to get his three kids to and from Anchorage schools every day.
His daughter starts at Romig Middle School this week, while his two other kids attend Willow Crest Elementary School. All start after he begins his workday at 8 a.m. Without bus service, Agpaoa will have to start work late and leave midday to do pick-up and drop-off.
“It’s truly not convenient at all,” he said.
He doesn’t want his kids walking to school down busy streets like Tudor Road and Minnesota Drive, where cars speed along at 45 miles per hour.
Luckily, Agpaoa does have some flexibility to leave during the workday, but he still has to meet certain deadlines. He said that means he’ll be forced to start really early or work later into the day to make up for what he misses, taking away from quality time at home and helping his kids with homework.
Some families are staring down lengthy trips to pick up and drop off their kids, including families who live south of Anchorage in Girdwood, Indian and Bird Creek, and send their students to South Anchorage High School.
Paula Bogdan and her family live in Girdwood, around 35 miles from South High School. Without bus service, getting her son who attends South to school will entail driving some 140 miles every day, between two round-trips to the school and their home.
Girdwood parents are trying to come up with a solution, she said. Someone even floated the idea of pooling funds and renting a passenger van, though it’s not clear it would be large enough for all the students who need transport, and would come with liability issues.
Plus, driving up and down the winding, narrow Seward Highway multiple times a day comes with its own risks, especially for high school students who are beginner drivers, Bogdan pointed out.
With gas prices so high, Bogdan said she calculated her family would spend an additional $700 during the six weeks without service to fuel their 16-year-old minivan. And that’s based on the assumption she’ll have a carpool option lined up and will only have to drive to Anchorage once a day.
Bogdan said people tend to assume Girdwood residents are wealthy, given the number of second homes in the area. But, she said, full-time residents being impacted by the busing issues tend to be lower or middle class.
“This is gonna hurt a lot of us much more than people think,” she said.