Heidi Laflamme refills her bus with diesel fuel March 16 at the Maine School Administrative District 11 bus yard in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

As grades 3 to 5 returned back to Gardiner-based Maine School Administrative District 11 for classes last month — in-person, four days a week — Director of Transportation Gabe Dostie said for the bus drivers, it was like “the first day of school” again.

Before the elementary school students were able to return, Dostie had to make sure the district would be able to transport the students to their school. However, a lack of bus drivers made this hard, as he had to move some buses around and put some extra students on the buses.

MSAD 11 is down five bus drivers and have only had two applicants so far since last school year.

“We had some weeks to prepare for it, and it went well,” Dostie said after the bus run on the first day back. “There is a little apprehension; it’s like the first day of school going from the yellow model to green.”

Under the red-yellow-green color code system used by the state Department of Education, all Maine schools are now classified as “green,” meaning state officials think there’s a low enough risk of coronavirus spread that schools can consider in-person instruction if they enact certain precautions and protocols.

Maine Department of Education spokesperson Kelli Deveaux said the bus driver shortage is “100% a statewide issue.”

“School districts across Maine have been using bonuses, offered paid training programs and even worked with other employment and training organizations to try and entice people to join our bus driver workforce,” Deveaux said.

Dostie said the Department of Education and the Maine Center for Disease Control allow siblings to sit in the same row together and students in the same cohort or daycare group together, but overall, only one student per seat is allowed on the bus.

MSAD 11 Superintendent Pat Hopkins said at the March 18 school board meeting she was “practically begging” for parents to drive their kids to school and that limitations “may prevent us from being able to increase the number of in-person days for middle and high school.”

Bus driver Heidi Laflamme sanitizes the bus she drives following the afternoon run March 16 at the MSAD 11 bus yard in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

For now, Hopkins said, they can make do with the bus drivers they have to accommodate MSAD 11’s current school schedule.

“They were split into two different cohorts and the numbers have been low because parents have been transporting their kids,” Dostie said. “Some of the buses may have only had 10 students on it, so with the load doubling, it’s still 20 kids and they are able to sit one seat per bus. Some of the bus runs had to adjust a little bit.”

When he first started working in MSAD 11, Dostie said having a lack of bus drivers was not the norm, but it has “gotten worse” as the years have gone on. He thinks it’s partially due to the coronavirus pandemic, but also because some people don’t look at being a bus driver as a career. Many drivers in MSAD 11 are retired and chose to become drivers as their job after retirement.

“There aren’t a lot of younger people looking to become bus drivers,” Dostie said. “The majority of them, I would say the average age is close to mid-60s. Most of them are retired.”

The district has had to start to become creative in how it attracts drivers, he said, adding that the benefits package, of full health and dental insurance is what draws many drivers to MSAD 11’s program. The average pay is around $18 per hour, but to get a Class B license with a passenger endorsement to drive a school bus can cost upward of $2,500.

Dostie said the district has started thinking about paying for the class of new drivers, but contracting them for a couple of years afterward in order to have them stick around.

Bus drivers Emily Webber, Stephanie Webber, Lorraine Schwarz, transportation manager Julie Greenleaf, and drivers Linda Blewin and Laurel McFerland gather March 17 at the Regional School Unit 38 bus yard in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Julie Greenleaf, the transportation manager at Readfield-based Regional School Unit 38, said her district is seeing the same issue as MSAD 11. She is down five drivers and thinks it’s partly due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s been a challenging year,” Greenleaf said. “We have lost some drivers due to the fact we have had to step up the cleaning on the buses and I think the face masks were part of it, too.

“Some drivers wear glasses and their glasses fogging up made it a challenge for drivers,” she added. “Having a shortage of drivers in transporting students to school and limiting the amount of students on the bus made it challenging.”

Greenleaf said there are only around 100 to 200 students in the district they don’t transport. The others — around 1,000 students — all rely on the buses to get them to school.

Superintendent Jay Charette had to cancel school a couple of times in the past weeks because there was no driver to transport the students to school. At RSU 38’s school board meeting on March 6, Shawn Roderick of the school board said he would be willing to add money into the 2021-2022 budget for transportation if it meant attracting more drivers to the Maranacook area district.

In a normal year, Greenleaf said there are around 19 to 20 drivers.

“For the ones that are not on the school bus, parents had to transport,” she said. “It puts hardships on the parents … a lot are starting to return back to work and asking for transportation, but we don’t have the drivers. We had to combine a few routes to get the kids we did have back on the buses because we have lost drivers in between.”

In order to attract drivers, Greenleaf said they are matching experience with pay. She said it’s been difficult because they have lost drivers to other districts if that district pays more, especially since most of the school districts in the area are hiring.

The school board of Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2 talked about not having enough drivers at its March 4 business meeting. Superintendent Tonya Arnold said the district has open positions for both custodians and bus drivers, but emphasized on the bus driver aspect. “Send us drivers!” she said at the meeting.

Augusta Public School System Superintendent James Anastasio said Wednesday a challenge with bringing students to school in-person, five days a week could factor around transportation. He said because of spacing, it may be a challenge to bring more students in.

But Dostie emphasized the importance of having bus drivers and transporting students to school, and thinks the problem should be solved statewide, not just through the districts since so many students rely on district transportation to get to school.

“We need to transport these children to school and get them to school,” he said. “That’s what benefits them. For a lot of students, school is the only time they can get breakfast or meals and if they aren’t being transported, then they aren’t getting breakfast. Drivers are usually the first district person they see in the morning and the last in the district they see in the afternoon.”

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