Education

Anchorage families reshuffle schedules and lose sleep as school bus driver shortage drags on

school bus trouble, Underwood family, Anchorage School District

A school bus driver shortage in Anchorage that began in August is dragging on. For families, it has translated to a reshuffling of schedules and routines, less sleep and longer days, creating both burden and exhaustion as they try to get their students to school each day.

While the school district continues to permanently reestablish service to some bus routes each week, it’s unclear when the issue may fully resolve. Many families are still only receiving bus service for three weeks at a time, then going without for six weeks, as bus service rotates throughout the district.

There are 190 drivers on the job, up from 158 at the beginning of the school year. The district needs about 228 drivers to be fully staffed. Twenty-one drivers are in training.

Andrew Underwood and his family are among those affected by the shortage.

Underwood is currently disabled, so he can’t drive. He used to walk his two kids — Ruby, 7, and Ledger, 8, who go to Chinook Elementary — to their neighborhood bus stop each morning.

They live a mile from the school in the Sand Lake neighborhood, which is too far for Underwood to walk. His wife Stephanie now drives their two children to school each day, then has to leave work to pick them up, which means she stays at work later.

Beyond bus service suspensions, the district also consolidated routes, so even when the Underwoods do get bus service, their stop is now located twice as far away, on the busiest street in their neighborhood.

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It’s not safe, Underwood said, to wait in the dark there. Underwood has epilepsy, which he said means he could pass out at any time. His wife has opted to continue driving the kids to school even when they do have bus service.

The current situation is expensive and inconvenient, he said. Plus, Underwood liked walking his kids to the bus stop each morning.

[‘Slow strangulation’: Alaska school districts face fiscal cliff with high inflation and flat funding]

“It’s nice to get outside and have that time, and that’s kind of been taken away,” he said.

Even still, Underwood said he can’t be mad at the district — he said he knows they’re trying. He said he just thinks drivers should be paid a little more.

For Shannon Jones, who lives on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson with her husband and two sons, the lack of buses has meant a complete reshuffling of their routine.

Jones’ husband works nights. Now, he comes home from work in the morning, grabs a few hours of sleep, and then wakes up to go pick up the two kids from school. A lot of times, he’s not able to fall back asleep after, she said.

“It’s been a pretty exhausting duration for him,” she said.

Jones is a nurse and works from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. She said if she left to go pick up her two sons, she’d need to take vacation time, and it would leave her coworkers in a bind.

They’re in a carpool group with a neighbor whose son is friends with one of Jones’ kids, and takes the group to Bartlett High School in the morning, though she hasn’t met the neighbor.

“We’re transient in these three- or four-year terms up here,” said Jones, whose husband is an active-duty military member. “So we don’t have those social safety nets or those social supports in place. So when the district says things like, ‘Well, you know, just find a car pool or something to accommodate,’ that’s not a realistic option for a lot of folks.”

Jones and her family just had their bus route permanently reinstated on Friday, but that hasn’t resolved issues entirely since her kids need transportation to sports — meaning her husband still needs to wake up and take them to their after-school activities, too.

“We carpool basically the entire boys’ bowling team at this point,” Jones said.

[School closures likely as Anchorage School District reckons with a budget crisis]

While having the bus service reinstated was a huge relief, Jones said she thinks the district should publish its reinstatement plans for families as they navigate the continued suspension. It would be helpful for families to know where they’re at in the queue, she said.

“There’s a lot of families out there that are just still kind of in limbo, not sure if they’re getting a bus tomorrow or if it’s going to be another nine weeks or if they’re the last ones on the list, if they’re even going to get one,” she said.

As the district hires more drivers, it can permanently reinstate more routes, which it has been doing each week.

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The district has a committee set up to reestablish bus routes based on safety concerns and traffic density, said acting chief operating officer Rob Holland. And while they have a reestablishment plan for the remaining unserviced routes, Holland said the district is not currently sharing it publicly since they can’t say when, exactly, each route would be reinstated.

“We cannot assign dates to that with certainty,” he said.

The school district doesn’t have a date for when all routes will likely be reinstated, essentially ending the service suspensions, Holland said. To date, they’ve added 51 more routes.

Janelle Abad’s son Jazz, a seventh-grader at Hanshew Middle School, was excited to take the bus after attending charter school for years. Abad said he loved riding it the first few weeks of school while his route was serviced.

But when her son’s route goes unserviced, Abad’s son can’t stay at school past 3:30 and has to walk to The Loft Hair Design, where Abad works, and wait there until her husband gets off work to pick him up.

“He’s anxious to start riding the bus again,” Abad said in an email. “But until then … he can hang out with mom at work.”

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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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