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District 65 is struggling with bus routes due to driver shortage

First grader Levi Lang takes the bus to Dewey Elementary School and says his regular bus driver is always on time. But there are some mornings, said his father Paul Lang, when “after waiting five minutes we know, OK, today is going to be a small day. Which usually means that we wait a bit. ”

“Sometimes tears flow, but at some point he gets on the bus and comes to school,” said Lang. Levi cut in: “It’s just frustrating.”

Lang said that District 65’s transportation program “works very well for the most part,” but that they waited up to 35 or 40 minutes for Levi’s bus.

Levi, a charming conversationalist who said he knew “everyone on the bus”, recalled a problem on the way home with a replacement driver in particular: “I think she actually drove all the way backwards. I was the last one to get off the bus. ”

When the regular bus driver is absent, Lang says: “You never know for sure whether it’s a labor shortage or just the drivers on the routes are not trained, but it just seems to fall apart.”

More late routes this year

The Langs’ experience is not unique; Lou Gatta, Transportation Director at Evanston / Skokie School District 65, has reported a sustained increase in the number of delayed bus routes this year. A memo from Gatta, included on the agenda for the November 10th Personnel, Buildings, and Land and Finance Committee meeting, said the monthly bus delay incidents prior to the pandemic were all in the single digits – five in August 2019 and seven in both September and October 2019 for example.

This year started with only five late routes in August, but that quickly rose to 10 in September and 17 in October. And these statistics only reflect cases where a bus is late for school and Positive Connections is considered culpable, e.g. B. in the event of a mechanical breakdown or a personnel problem.

In addition, the number of bus routes decreased from 171 in 2019 to 154 in 2021, so that the proportion of delayed lines has increased significantly. The bus company pays the district a $ 100 fine for every delay on a bus route.

A person who answered the phone at Positive Connections on Nov. 22, said the company had no comment on the number of routes that were delayed this year.

Positive Connections is one of five companies promoting students from District 65. (Photo by Bessie Mbadugha)

Earlier this year, at the District 65 School Committee meeting on Sept. 27, Gatta said that given the ongoing national shortage of school bus drivers, compounded by the reopening of schools, last year’s strategy to include 10 Milwaukee drivers did this Year won’t be an option. He said the Department of Transportation had been working to “proactively attract more companies” to occupy the buses.

“We are now working with five companies to transport all of our students,” said Gatta. “And so we are fundamentally much better positioned than many other districts, but there are still major challenges.”

The diverse fleet of District 65 includes: 41 large yellow school buses from Positive Connections and four from Compass Transportation, an additional eight Pre-K buses from the two companies, two BriteLift buses for district-internal and district-free special school lines as well as 10 vans and over 40 cars and taxis for special transports from Zum and 303 Taxi.

National driver shortage

Citing examples such as Chicago Public Schools, who pay families a $ 1,000 scholarship to not ride the bus, members of the Massachusetts National Guard told to ride buses, and school dropouts due to transportation problems, Gatta claims that “It’s an extremely challenging environment, to say the least. “And he didn’t expect it to subside; “If anything, it will be more difficult.”

The challenges include the high demand for drivers and the limited supply pool. Gatta noted “significant headwinds” as drivers are recruited from companies such as Amazon and FedEx and wage competition ensues.

In some cases, drivers choose multiple employment options, such as a replacement driver who, according to young Levi Lang, also does “Ubers and Amazon”.

Levi suggested that replacement bus drivers be given GPS directions, and his father agreed, noting that the technology exists to help bus drivers unfamiliar with routes.

“Nobody who drives an Uber or delivers food necessarily knows the route, they are only instructed,” said Paul Lang. “And it seems like we can do this here.”

District 65 statistics show that the number of delayed bus routes is increasing. (Photo by Bessie Mbadugha)

Route consolidation complications

Gatta reported to the school board on Sept. 27 that one of the strategies to alleviate the driver shortage was to review “schools with multiple routes that can be on the same bus” and consolidate the routes. Another was that buses run several routes a day so that “each of our routes does an early school and then a later enrollment.”

He said that if there was “a little change” on the track, as there were no minutes left, this would unfortunately have a domino effect.

On his way home, Levi said that his bus driver “usually takes the kids to the Y. brings [the McGaw YMCA] first and then we’ll wait at Dewey’s for her to come back … which is usually like a five minute drive. And then she drops you off, she comes back and picks us up. Because there are just a lot of children that you have to put on the bus. ”He said that after the YMCA departure there is a lot of space in the bus. “Three people fit in [in a seat row] but we usually only do two. ”

Levi’s open-minded and friendly personality happens to go well with his assigned place, as he adds with a smile: “I can really talk to anyone and everyone can hear me because I’m sitting right in the middle.”

Communication problems

The start of the school year was marred by a technological snafus that included the transition of the district from the Tyler SISK12 student information system to PowerSchool. Gatta stated that while he waited for Blackboard and PowerSchool to implement, he “came up with a workaround that could take emails from drivers and send emails to individual routes.” But he admitted that not all email is received and that sending SMS would be easier and faster.

The Lang family’s system of knowing when the bus is delayed is to wait a certain amount of time. “And when we come out the window, I usually call the D65 bus,” Lang said. But “it would be nice if there was an indication of when the bus will be there.”

Sometimes the bus is delayed on the return journey; To keep up to date with Levi’s journey home, Lang and his wife Andrea used Apple Air Tags, and as Levi said, “Wherever I go, my mom and dad can follow me.”

Lang said the tracking devices are a good tool for the bus. “It seems we have some technology that could make parents’ fear go away,” he said.

“We tried to solve a bit of that with the tags,” he added. “But between text messages or GPS cues, it seems like something can be done there.”

First grader Levi Lang says “It’s just frustrating” when a substitute driver thinks his bus to Dewey Elementary School is delayed. (Courtesy Paul Lang)

One fearful experience for the Lang family came last year when Levi’s bus was delayed and he went to school without a check-in. Around noon, his parents were shocked when they received a message that Levi was absent. “That was about a 10 to 15 minute scare, but it took care of itself,” Lang said. Fortunately, Levi didn’t know he was probably missing. But he said he later learned that a friend’s family received a similar call.

This year Levi continued, “We have this person on our bus in case our bus is delayed. She has a label that she can… scan to take us to Dewey. ”Lang said he was glad that there was a helper on the bus. Levi described his check-in process, which involves standing in line to have your temperature checked. The line moves quickly, according to Levi, and the longest wait was two minutes. “On rainy days, they’re probably trying to check people in as quickly as they can move their hands!” He said.

To make sure everyone gets home on the correct bus, Levi said that “Ms. Zina ”accompanies him and his passengers to the corresponding buses, where their names, bus and seat numbers are confirmed before boarding.

Ms. Zina, Levi announced, is “responsible for all bus drivers to get to their buses, and then the bus drivers take them from there!”

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