PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Public Schools (PPS) is one of the many school districts nationwide facing a bus driver shortage. Less than two weeks into the 2020-21 school year, the shortage is already posing challenges with getting kids to school.
"We have had, and will continue to have, some routes that have had to be canceled and others that have seen pick-up or drop-off times altered," PPS said in a letter to parents emailed Thursday afternoon.
PPS students on nine different bus routes were unable to be picked up Thursday morning because of the shortage. The district said every route is covered when all its current drivers come to work, but there has been an increase in drivers who are calling in sick or unable to work, creating a dynamic situation for schools.
PPS and its partner organization, First Student, are down a total of 86 drivers as of Thursday, Sept. 9. About 50 drivers are in training, but it typically takes about a month for a driver to be fully trained. The training process has been slightly delayed because some PPS trainers have taken shifts as drivers, the district said.
Factors that have contributed to the bus driver shortage, according to PPS, include:
- Drivers not returning after being furloughed when schools were closed during the pandemic.
- Many drivers (who all work part-time) being retirees who are more vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19.
- Hesitancy among some to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, which is required by both PPS and the state for all school employees.
The district said it's considering several steps to mitigate issues caused by the shortage, which include:
- Altering pick-up and drop-off times for routes throughout the district to allow buses to run multiple routes.
- Enlisting staff in PPS' transportation department office who are licensed to drive a school bus to take a route, with as many as 10 filling in to drive a route. This, however, has created a staff shortage in the transportation office.
The bus driver shortage has created problems for other Oregon school districts as well. In the town of Vernonia, about 45 minutes northwest of Portland, the first day of school was postponed by two weeks after a bus driver died of COVID-19 and others had to quarantine as a result.
When KGW asked the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) if it is considering calling on the National Guard to help drive school buses — something other states have considered — ODE did not outright say no, but pointed out many Oregon National Guard members have been deployed to hospitals around the state to assist with the surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
"All options are being considered to support full-time, in-person instruction," ODE Director Colt Gill said in a statement. "Currently Oregon’s National Guard members are supporting the extreme need seen in our hospitals and public health system. Federal emergency relief funds are available to offer incentives to hire school bus drivers. I encourage school districts to utilize these emergency funds for that purpose."