Roaring Fork Schools adapting to ongoing bus driver shortages
Best-laid plans for a Roaring Fork School District bus driver to make an afternoon sports team drop in Rifle and return to Carbondale in time for a regular after-school bus route went south with last Friday’s Interstate 70 closure due to a police incident.
The situation pointed up an ongoing dilemma for the district related to a shortage of bus drivers.
“When we have enough drivers, we’re able to do those activity and sports trips separate from our regular bus routes,” District Transportation Director Jared Rains said. “When we don’t, we end up having drivers doing double duty.”
In this case, the driver got stuck in the traffic backup on I-70 as a result of the closure, prompting a district email alert to parents whose students were supposed to take that particular bus home from school, advising them to make other arrangements.
“We’re dealing with a lot of those kinds of things that we didn’t have to deal with before,” Rains said.
The district, which serves schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, had a full team of 31 bus drivers for the 2020-21 school year. That number was down to 14 at the start of this school year, and only just recently increased to 15, he said.
It was the first commercially licensed bus driver hire the district has been able to make since early 2021 — a span of time that has seen the district make numerous adjustments to try to fill in the student transportation gaps, and to offer incentives to try to get more bus drivers on board.
“I’d much rather have 25 or more drivers on the road to be able to provide much better service for our students,” Rains said.
Until then, the driver shortage has made for some innovative cooperative arrangements.
The district worked with the city of Glenwood Springs and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to add a Ride Glenwood bus stop in front of Glenwood Springs Middle School.
About two dozen students living in the central part of town on either side of Grand Avenue now take the city bus to the West Glenwood school location, making up for a school bus route that had to be cut earlier this year, Rains said.
In Basalt, due to a route cut east of town along the Colorado Highway 82 corridor, students living in that area take the RFTA local bus for free to get to Basalt High School.
“We had to cut about half of our routes, many of which we combined with other routes,” Rains said.
What used to be 28 routes throughout the school district is now 14, he said. That results in two trips for some drivers, who have to drop off one group of students at their respective schools earlier than normal, then head back out to pick up a second group of students. Same in the afternoon when school lets out.
“What that means is we have students showing up for school early, and then leaving late in some cases,” Rains said.
That, in turn, has meant some staffing adjustments within the schools to keep students occupied before school starts and after it ends.
That can be difficult for elementary schools in particular, because students that age need more supervision.
At Glenwood Springs Elementary School, two student interventionists now arrive at 7:45 a.m. instead of 8 to be able to keep students occupied until classes start.
The back end of the day can be more difficult, GSES Principal Jess Schwarz said. Some staff is scheduled to stick around until 4 p.m., instead of leaving at 3:45 p.m., but a lot of times students are still at the school past 4 if a bus is late returning for the second pickup.
“We’re not understaffed currently, and we do have some solutions in house to deal with it,” Schwarz said. “Everybody is rallying, but long term is it the best solution? Probably not.”
The biggest challenge, she said, is making sure students arrive to school in an orderly, calm fashion so that they are ready to jump into class and learn.
“If some students are staggering in late because of transportation challenges, we’re not setting them up to be at their best,” Schwarz said.
To correct things, Rains said the district has been offering signing bonuses and paid licensure training to lure CML bus driver applicants, as well as referral bonuses for any staff members internally who point a bus driver to the district.
A mill levy override approved by district voters in fall 2021 also helped to bring wages up for bus drivers, and the district has worked to create more full-time positions within the transportation department, he said.
The district’s Human Resources Department is also looking at recruiting more internationally to bring people in on worker visas to be bus drivers and fill other positions with the district.
In the meantime, to help cover extracurricular activities, field trips and sports, teachers and coaches have stepped up to at least obtain a license to drive a minibus to cover some of those needs, Rains said.
If teams from two district schools are headed to the same sports tournament, they’re also sometimes required to take the same bus.
Otherwise, the district’s full-time bus drivers are utilized for sports and other off-site activities, since those trips tend to involve longer hours, Rains said. About three or four trips per month also involve overnight duties, he said.
Garfield Re-2 also has driver shortages
Similar to the Roaring Fork Schools, the Garfield Re-2 School District in New Castle, Silt and Rifle has also had to make some adjustments due to bus driver shortages this year.
Currently, all routes are covered but the district remains short on drivers, Re-2 Director of Communications Theresa Hamilton said.
The district has 24 route drivers, but 28 routes, meaning some “over the road” drivers also sub in for route drivers.
“We’re always short drivers, so the first thing we do is, everybody drives,” Hamilton said. That means mechanics, the director of the district’s transportation department and route schedulers drive buses if they’re short-handed, she said.
Hamilton said the district also strategically arranges trips so that they’re being as efficient as possible. For instance, that may mean leaving earlier for a field trip so that a bus driver doesn’t have to wait around after finishing a regular morning route.
Post Independent interim Managing Editor and senior reporter John Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 970-384-9160. Assistant Editor and Western Garfield County reporter Ray Erku [email@example.com] also contributed to this report.
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