Driver shortages are impacting school bus routes, leaving some students without a ride to school

A school bus is pictured at the Summit School District's bus barn in Frisco. The district is short eight bus drivers, meaning there will be fewer bus routes available for Summit County families.
Tripp Fay/Summit Daily News archive

As classes start back in person this week, some parents are wondering how they will get their kids to school as Summit School District faces a bus driver shortage.

According to Transportation Manager Andrea Meyer-Pemble, the district currently employs five full-time drivers, five part-time drivers, one morning-only driver, three substitute drivers and two mechanics. To be fully staffed, the district would need to hire eight additional drivers and two relief drivers.

Because there are fewer drivers, there are also fewer bus routes running. Before COVID-19, the district ran 18 routes; this year it will run only 11. All elementary school students will have a spot on a bus if they live along one of the routes, but middle and high school students were placed in a lottery.

“I want you to understand that we are extremely empathetic; we are extremely understanding of the challenges you are facing,” Superintendent Roy Crawford said in a video to the community posted on the district’s Facebook page. “Our own employees are facing those same challenges, and we understand how disruptive that can be.”

Crawford said the district is working with local partners to try and find solutions, but they are experiencing the same labor shortages as the district.

Many parents have expressed understanding with the district’s staffing struggles, but they are worried about getting their kids to school.

Meg Caldwell has a son at Summit High School and a daughter at Breckenridge Elementary School, and her family lives just south of Breckenridge. She said one bus will be going to the high school from Breckenridge Elementary, rather than picking students up around town, and students were placed in a lottery to determine if they would have a spot on the bus.

“The challenge right now is we start school in a week, and nobody knows how they’re going to get their kids to school,” Caldwell said in an interview last week. “We can’t even really organize because we don’t know, and I’m finding there are still parents that have no idea if their kids may not have a bus.”

Caldwell also said families were asked to remove themselves from the lottery if their student would not be riding the bus in the morning and the afternoon, which leaves student athletes out of the equation.

A school bus is pictured at the Summit School District's bus barn in Frisco.
Photo by Tripp Fay / Tripp Fay Photography

“My son plays football, so now he’s being punished for doing a sport because after school he’s going to go to practice,” Caldwell said. “Coming into football season, he’s still going to need a bus.”

Caldwell will also have to drive her daughter to the elementary school every day because there is no bus option south of Breckenridge. She said when filling out a survey about needs for her elementary student, there wasn’t an option to say she needed a bus in her specific area.

Meyer-Pemble said this year’s bus routes were determined based on pre-COVID-19 route structure, enrollment data, driver input on where most students were before the pandemic and time management. The district was unable to get buses to Blue River and Eagles Nest and has limited service to Copper Mountain. She also said demand for buses is extremely high for middle and high school students.

Amanda Bolan has three kids: one at Summit Middle School and two at Dillon Valley Elementary. She was already planning on driving her two youngest to the elementary school since they live close and she has to sign in her preschooler, but she’s worried about what she will do if her daughter doesn’t get a spot on a bus to the middle school.

Bolan said her and her husband’s work schedules would make it difficult to drive to the middle school in the morning and afternoon. She’s started trying to get a group of parents together that might be comfortable putting their middle schoolers on a Summit Stage bus together.

“I could drive her to the bus stop, and that would be a lot easier than having to take her all the way to Frisco,” Bolan said. “But since she’s only 11, I’m not super comfortable just sending her off on her own on the city bus without a companion of sort.”

Caldwell said she thinks the district has been good about communication overall, but she wishes she could have been given more information earlier in the summer to plan ahead. She said she’s started trying to find a group that might be able to carpool to the high school in case her son wasn’t selected for a spot on the bus.

“I know that Summit School District is working hard and their resources are limited, I just feel like maybe we could have been a little bit further ahead of it,” Caldwell said.

Bolan also emphasized her understanding of the district’s labor shortages but wished there was a more clear process for signing up for the bus.

“I think there are a lot of families dependent on transportation and the district,” Bolan said. “I don’t think we’re in this boat alone. I’m obviously not angry about it; I am just trying to work my life out.”

Meyer-Pemble said elementary parents who filled out the district’s preregistration have since been notified of their students’ bus status, and middle and high school parents should have been notified by Aug. 13 if their child was selected in the lottery or put on a waitlist.

The district is currently looking for part-time bus drivers, substitute drivers, and night and weekend-activity drivers. Pay ranges from $19.75 to $30.61 an hour, and drivers are eligible for up to an extra $1,000 from an incentive program. Drivers also receive paid training and are paid over all 12 months of the year.

Bus drivers must have a high school diploma or equivalent as well as three years of driving experience. A commercial driver’s license is also required. If a driver doesn’t already have one, they can obtain it within three months of being hired.

“We’re doing what we can to recruit and to increase our number of routes,” Crawford said in the video. “We ask that you be patient; we’re doing our best. We’re going to try to find solutions to ease this situation, and we’ll be back to you with more information as we know more.”

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