Education

More Anchorage school bus drivers are on the way, but service disruptions are the reality for now

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Ahead of the first day of school Thursday, the Anchorage School District superintendent highlighted some good news: Dozens more school bus drivers will be licensed by the end of September, helping ease a shortage that is forcing the district to enact rolling bus route suspensions for the start of the school year.

In the meantime, however, thousands of families will need to adjust to bus service suspensions that will last for weeks at a time.

The first day of class could bring traffic mayhem to schools with more vehicles arriving during pick-up and drop-off, and superintendent Jharrett Bryantt — in an email to families Wednesday — warned of the challenges that may come with high volumes of pedestrians and vehicles during those times. Bus service disruptions have also spurred concerns about growing rates of absenteeism if students are kept home from school because of a lack of transportation options.

Parents are scrambling to organize carpools, find alternative transportation, set up child care or rearrange their workdays, and some are even considering homeschooling to make things work.

Shani Pritchard, a single mom who starts work at 6:30 a.m. every day, said her daughter, who’s an eighth grader at Romig Middle School, may need to take an Uber to school on the weeks when there’s no bus service.

The bus route suspensions affect most students, and service will be provided on a three-weeks-on, six-weeks-off basis. Families have been split into three bus service groups, which means some students aren’t scheduled to have their first three weeks of bus service until early October.

Pritchard told her daughter that she should do online school if she doesn’t have a bus for six weeks, but her daughter doesn’t want to do that. And while Pritchard’s daughter could walk or longboard to school, it would take her an hour, and Pritchard said it’s unsafe for her to leave when it’s still dark outside.

“I am very stressed and my daughter is very stressed, but we just kind of figured, what’s gonna happen is gonna happen,” Pritchard said. “I can’t get angry about it because it’s not anybody’s fault.”

[School bus service suspensions cause logistical nightmares for Anchorage parents]

ASD is one of three Southcentral Alaska school districts experiencing school bus service issues this school year, though the Anchorage driver shortage has led to the most widespread route suspensions so far.

Nationally, other school districts are also contending with bus driver shortages. In St. Louis, Missouri, thousands of students will have their bus service suspended for two weeks, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported this week. St. Louis Public Schools is allowing elementary students to go to before-school care for free, and giving families $75 gas station cards every week if a student has perfect attendance, the news outlet reported.

And during driver shortages last year, several school districts in states across the country asked for help from the National Guard, though multiple requests were not approved, according to the publication Education Week.

ASD, Denali Elementary, Denali Montessori, Jharrett Bryantt, school

For now, there’s no quick fix to the problem in Anchorage, with the school district down about 70 bus drivers. But superintendent Bryantt said this week that the rotations are temporary, with many more drivers in varying stages of training who will be ready to work by the end of September.

“I recognize the level of frustration and pain felt by the many members of our community as a result of the bus driver shortage,” Bryantt said during a Tuesday school board meeting.

There are 16 newly hired drivers in training while seven more are expected to start training next week, Bryantt said. Beyond that, there are 16 bus drivers in the screening and interview process, and 17 additional drivers are set to start work Sept. 19, he said.

That means more than 55 of the 70 needed drivers will be licensed and behind the wheel by the end of next month.

In the meantime, many families will likely struggle getting their kids to school on time and on a regular basis during the bus service rotations. The school district was only able to service 158 of 228 routes, according to information provided this week. Special education bus routes are not impacted by the shortage.

Bryantt said, however, that there’s a “light at the end of this tunnel,” and the district is working to finish a plan on where the new drivers will be deployed — prioritizing student safety and areas with the highest levels of need.

In an email to South High School families obtained by the Daily News, the district announced it would reinstate bus services to students who live in Girdwood, Bird and Indian, who previously faced a 30-mile commute into school on the Seward Highway each day.

The district is also considering other solutions to alleviate the current driver shortage, including the potential use of National Guard resources. The district and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office have been in communication about working together since last week, district spokeswoman Lisa Miller said.

Alaska has never used the National Guard for a school bus driver shortage, and during a Wednesday interview, Bryantt said he couldn’t share details about what that scenario would look like.

Alan Brown, spokesman for the Alaska National Guard, wrote in an email Wednesday that “there have been discussions about how the Alaska National Guard might assist with the bus driver shortage.”

Bryantt said he believed several factors contributed to the bus service crisis.

“I would speculate that some of our bus drivers had options to get paid more if they were to drive a bus in a different place. ... It was high demand and low supply,” he said.

The school district is advertising new bus driver positions with pay at $20.68 an hour and is offering an incentive of up to $2,500 for new and existing drivers. They’ve also “ramped up” their recruitment communication, Bryantt said.

School board member Dave Donley asked Bryantt during the meeting Tuesday night about the plans principals were making for pick-up and drop-off times at schools in the district.

“The first couple of weeks, 100 parents showing up to drop their kids off is chaos,” Donley said. “And it takes a while for the parents to get into a pattern, you know, learn, be educated on the proper safe way to drop off kids and pick them up.”

Bryantt said the district had been discussing that issue, including the need for more crossing guards, and on Wednesday he said in the email to families that the district was coordinating with the Anchorage Police Department on drop-off and pick-up flow. Many principals this year are either new to their role or school, so district leaders are working them on their specific building needs, Bryantt said.

He also said they’ve also discussed leaving schools open later and opening them earlier.

Miller said ASD is harking back to the early days of COVID-19 and asking everyone to be kind to each other during pick-up and drop-off.

Other recommendations from the school district include:

• Driving safely and keeping cellphones down during student pick-up and drop-off.

• Dropping off students in their school’s specific drop-off zones, and having them get out of the car as close to school as possible.

• Carpooling if possible.

• Having students wear reflective tape or clothing if they’re walking to school or waiting for a bus.

• Having students exit the car on the curb side, and making sure students can easily get in and out of the vehicle.

• Avoiding stopping or double parking on crosswalks.

• Only using handicapped spaces if you have a permit.

Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

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