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DECATUR SCHOOLS
'IT SEEMS UNACCEPTABLE'

Watch now: The impact of too few school bus drivers on these Decatur families

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DOMINANT

Buses pick up students after school on Wednesday at American Dreamer STEM Academy in Decatur. Like many school systems, the Decatur school district has been dealing with a shortage of bus drivers. 

A lack of bus drivers has made getting children to school difficult for families and impossible for some.

DECATUR — The headache over having too few bus drivers continues for Decatur Public Schools — and that's causing a big problem for some families. 

This week, 19 bus routes are without drivers, which means a lot of families either have to get the kids to and from school themselves or, if they don't have a way to do that, worry about child care and remote learning.

Otiyuna Franklin's three school-aged kids have not had a bus to ride at all this school year. She also has a baby.

“My husband goes to work at 4:30 in the morning,” Franklin said. “He has the car and takes it to work. I can't drop him off and come home and get the kids ready for school. We have a small baby.”

The children — who are in sixth, fourth and first grade at American Dreamer STEM Academy — have been learning from home, she said, which is far from ideal, especially since they had to spend last year doing it when schools were closed.

SECONDARY

Tara Pitts directs traffic on Wednesday at American Dreamer STEM Academy. 

Going back in person this year was a big thing and not having transportation, they're missing out on going to school,” she said.

On Sunday nights, she gets a robo-call from the district listing all the buses that won't be running that week, and the list is always long, she said.

“We are still in same situation as to where we are, with a shortage of drivers,” said Director of Operations Henry Walker at Tuesday's board meeting. “It's not just a shortage of drivers but also COVID-related issues. We have people taking (Family Medical Leave Act time), using benefit times without having subs because of the shortage. The mask mandate and vaccine mandate, that plays a role in it, too.”

A national problem 

Bobbi Williams

Williams

The issue is being seen across the country. There are concerns about being exposed to COVID, as many drivers are retirees or older. In Connecticut, about 200 school bus drivers threatened to walk off the job because of a vaccine mandate. 

Officials in several states are working to find solutions to the shortages, and some are requesting that their governors send National Guard troops to help. A Wilmington, Delaware, school is paying its students’ parents to drive buses. Some regular drivers have had to work extra shifts.

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Parents pick up students after school on Wednesday at American Dreamer STEM Academy in Decatur. 

Tyerra Gaines has four children at American Dreamer and one at MacArthur, and she works in Mount Zion. She had to change her work schedule to allow time to drop her children off in the mornings and takes her lunch break to pick them up in the afternoon, which means she doesn't get to eat lunch. By the time she drives from Mount Zion to MacArthur and to American Dreamer and takes the younger children home, she has to hustle to get back to her job in time, and she doesn't always make it. That cuts into other people's breaks and it can get her into trouble at work. 

"I drive a Suburban and it's $91 to fill the tank up, and driving to and from (American Dreamer) to Mount Zion to home park, it's a real big inconvenience," Gaines said 

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Parents pick up students after school on Wednesday at American Dreamer STEM Academy.

Her husband's work hours prevent him from helping out most of the time, she said, and while her high school daughter has her license, she also has a job and can't pick up her siblings and take them home. Her car is in the shop and unavailable, so she rides to work with Gaines after school. 

Gaines has asked for the children to be allowed to learn virtually until a bus is available but was turned down. 

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Buses leave on Wednesday from American Dreamer STEM Academy.

"I work two hours later than my original (shift) now, so by the time I make it home, it's 7," she said. "I have to make sure homework is finished, get laundry and uniforms ready for the next day, cook dinner, and be a mom. It's just a lot."

Interim Superintendent Bobbi Williams said the administrators discuss the issue every day and have yet to come up with a solution that will work.

“One thing we talked about was a fourth tier,” Williams said, referring to the staggered start times that allow fewer routes to cover more schools. There are three tiers at present. “Maybe we could do that after Christmas so there's plenty of time to prepare, but every family in the district would be impacted.”

For some families, like hers, said board member Regan Lewis, they have their own transportation and they can juggle schedules and get the kids to school themselves, but some families do not have their own transportation or work schedules aren't flexible. A fourth tier, for example, could have an impact on their child care arrangements, and day cares are having staffing shortages, too, with long waiting lists if a family needed to change their arrangements.

“Attendance is down because we have kids who just can't get to school,” Williams said. “A fourth tier is doable, but families who have secured day care, for example, would have to get a new day care, and day cares are strapped. It's a lose/lose situation and it's frustrating.”

'It seems unacceptable' 

Changing bell times would affect a lot of families, said Alyssa Swengel, whose children attend Montessori Academy of Peace, but it seems like the best solution to her. 

"After the year we all had it seems unacceptable to let transportation be an issue when they have the ability to manage it with a schedule change," Swengel said. "The driver shortage is nationwide, we can’t change that. We can use what we have with an altered schedule. I am happy to adapt to a new schedule to ensure more students are in school."

Walker said among the options they have considered are rotating routes so that students whose routes were out of operation during the first quarter of school would get buses, and the students who did have buses during the first quarter would take a turn without buses, but that's not a path he wants to pursue.

About 63 percent of drivers for Alltown Bus Service, which contracts with the district for transportation, have been vaccinated, while the remaining 37 percent have not, Walker said. Under Gov. J.B. Pritzker's current executive orders, all staff in schools are required to be vaccinated, including bus drivers.

It's not just a problem in Decatur. Districts nationwide are dealing with bus driver shortages, said board Vice President Andrew Taylor.

"I watched my grandkids' grades drop terribly through the whole remote learning ordeal," said Jennifer Clark, whose grandchildren attend Franklin Grove this year, though they used to attend Dennis School. They could walk to school before the district re-drew boundaries and now it's too far, she said. "We all were looking forward to going back to the classroom, then the redistricting, which honestly makes no sense in this case, now the bus issues. I know we are not the only family in this situation."

With work schedules conflicting with school schedules, Clark said, it's a juggling act to drive them to school and get them picked up at the end of the day. She also has a niece whose child attends Parsons, but the niece has to be at work long before school starts for the day, and the child has no bus available. 

"I want to know when the school district will put kids and families first," she said.

Other ideas that have been suggested, such as partnering with the city of Decatur's public buses, or using district vans to help get some of the kids to school, won't work for various reasons. City buses have their own routes to cover and are also short of drivers. And due to the Illinois State Board of Education's policies, people who drive students to school must have a specific school bus driver license. Alltown is trying to fill its vacancies, but training takes time, even when they can find people who want the jobs, Walker said. As of Tuesday, Alltown had six new drivers in various stages of training but none yet ready to start work.

“We have plenty of buses, we just don't have drivers,” Walker said. “We're very limited on what we can do. We are looking at it and trying to figure out a way to turn the ship. We've got a lot of things that are constantly popping up and what we hate to do is cause more chaos while still having the same issues.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 


Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter

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