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School bus driver shortage, traffic jams create transportation troubles across Lawrence

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No matter how students trek to school this year, some are trudging a rough path.

A national bus driver shortage has hit Lawrence, and it’s wreaking havoc on family routines. While some parents and guardians scramble to drive their children to school in time for the first bell, they’re encountering — and unintentionally contributing to — traffic jams.

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When Russell Swinburne Romine’s son was still waiting at the bus stop this morning 20 minutes after his scheduled pickup, he hopped in the car with his dad to avoid a tardy. A trip west down Sixth Street that should’ve taken about seven minutes turned into 15, and then Swinburne Romine made a quick dropoff in the Sprouts parking lot to avoid the congestion in front of Free State High School. With five minutes to spare, his son jogged the last leg of the trip to make it in time for an 8 a.m. start.

They live 2.7 miles from FSHS. The bus rides home last week took about an hour, Swinburne Romine said. It’s not how a 9th grader wants to start their first days of high school, but the dad said he understood bus companies across the country were short-staffed.

“Some proactive planning and communication, including new bus schedules, would have been appreciated here. As it stands as of this morning, you have kids arriving late to school and missing instructional time because this problem was not dealt with in a timely fashion. I don’t think we can be cavalier about that, especially this year. I’m lucky enough to be able to take off from working at home and jump in a car to slog through the crazy traffic on Sixth Street to get my kid where he needs to go on time. But a lot of people aren’t able to be that flexible.”

Julie Boyle, a spokesperson for Lawrence Public Schools, said that First Student, the company the district contracts with for school bus transportation, told the district that “due to a shortage of drivers, it will combine bus routes for the next few weeks. This will cause some delays. First Student will communicate with families of bus riders who may experience longer delays.”

Boyle said heavy school traffic at arrival and dismissal times — especially at larger schools — is expected this time of year, but it typically improves after the first few weeks as routines take hold.

“The district appreciates everyone’s patience and encourages planning ahead and exercising caution in and around school zones,” Boyle continued. “We encourage older students within walking distance of school to consider walking or biking to school. This not only helps ease traffic congestion, it promotes health benefits for students. Families from the same neighborhoods may want to consider carpooling.”

Students will still have access to a free breakfast at school, even if they arrive late, Boyle said.

Last week, Abha Bhattarai of The Washington Post reported bus drivers in Wilmington, Delaware, are in such short supply that EastSide Charter School offered parents $700 to transport their children to and from school. And in Pittsburgh Public Schools, a shortage of more than 400 bus drivers has delayed a return to the classroom by two weeks.

First Student job postings for part-time school bus drivers in Lawrence tout a starting wage of $17.25 an hour, a $1,500 signing bonus, eight paid holidays and paid Commercial Driver’s License training.

Jen Biddinger, corporate communications manager for First Student, said via email they would like to add nine bus drivers to the Lawrence branch.

“We do have driver candidates in various stages of training,” Biddinger said. “We hope to add them to our workforce in the coming weeks. It does take time to move an applicant through the hiring process to become qualified school bus driver. There are strict background checks, licensing requirements and training standards that must be met to safely operate a school bus.”

Doug Redding, a bus driver and recent candidate for Lawrence school board, said he’s worked for First Student for seven years. He said the bus driver shortage has spanned years and he’s had to double up on routes off and on. 

“As far as this year, when we start the school year it’s always a little bit rough.”

At an hourly wage of more than $17 an hour, benefits exist but not enough to depend on for a pension or retirement, Redding said. The training to obtain a CDL, physical requirements and background checks take a fair amount of energy, but they’re worth it, he said, for the pleasure that comes from “ferrying kids safely to school.”

A member of Teamsters Local Union 696, Redding said the job doesn’t offer enough hours to make the gig full time, and there’s no unemployment compensation during the summer, although unions continue to lobby for change.

The Times reached out to the city of Lawrence to ask how the traffic near FSHS compares with previous years. Josh Carson, public information officer for municipal services and operations, said that not enough data exists at this point in the school year to compare to previous years.

And with about 1/3 of students in the Lawrence school district attending classes remotely last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a similar comparison would need to go back at least two years.

Meanwhile, walkers across town are encountering street crossings that no longer offer an adult crossing guard to usher students across intersections. 

On Tuesday, Aug. 17, the Lawrence City Commission approved a school traffic policy and placement for crossing guard locations that eliminated 10 previously staffed locations after months of analysis and public discussions, as reported by the Times.

Boyle said families could access more information about the changes on the city’s School Traffic Control Policy webpage.

“Families with ongoing traffic safety concerns should visit with their school principal, who may involve the school site council in discussing the issue,” Boyle said. “School family members may want to consider joining neighbors in taking turns accompanying young children on their walk to-and-from school. Families from the same neighborhood may want to consider starting a walking school bus.” 

Boyle also provided tips for organizing a walking school bus, found here.

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