In Seattle, the start of a new era in pandemic schooling was quickly haunted by old problems.
Every day since school started on Wednesday, dozens of school bus routes have clocked delays in getting kids to or from school ranging from 15 minutes up to 2 hours. Some parents say they never got an alert from the district about their route, sending them into a last-minute scramble.
On the first day back, 127 Seattle Public School bus routes had significant delays of 11 minutes or more, out of more than 600 routes districtwide. On Friday, according to the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) website, 73 were estimated to be late by an hour or more in the morning, afternoon, or both ways.
A national school-bus driver shortage — made worse by drivers quitting during school building closures during the pandemic — has made this an annual struggle for Seattle and other school districts in recent years. First Student, SPS’s primary transportation contractor, currently has nearly 100 fewer drivers than it needs to staff Seattle routes and account for any driver absences. Amid the staffing shortage, drivers double up on routes, which creates the delays.
“We just figure it out, like we have had to do this entire pandemic,” said Molly Schmidt, who waited 45 minutes for her son’s bus to Cascadia Elementary School on Thursday morning before she gave up and drove him. “But it’s frustrating being promised something and it not being delivered.”
The district’s transportation hotline has also been backed up, with long hold times. Some parents report calling, waiting, and then reaching a voicemail inbox that warns the department has limited capacity to hear their messages.
“It is a challenge to lift up the systems on the first day after 18 months of not having these systems in place,” said district spokesman Tim Robinson.
In an email sent to families Friday, the district wrote, “We recognize that this week’s delays in yellow bus transportation have been frustrating. This is not the excellent service that we work to provide for our students.”
The district is exploring other options, including using shuttle vans and combining routes, according to the email. It will also provide more ORCA cards to middle school students (all SPS high-school students receive one). First Student, the district’s transporation provider, is also working on recruitment, offering $3,000 signing bonuses to applicants with a commercial driver’s license, and $1,000 for new drivers.
Other area districts, including Issaquah and Federal Way, have also contended with the labor shortage. Issaquah is reducing the number of routes it services. Meanwhile Lake Washington has increased its routes and drivers.
“As is true every year, during the first few weeks of school we work to adjust routes for several reasons, from traffic delays to balancing capacity,” Lake Washington’s spokesperson, Shannon Parthemer, wrote in an email.
In a recent national survey of 1,500 school-bus transportation providers conducted by the National Association for Pupil Transportation and other associations, 51% said their driver shortages were “severe” or “desperate.”
Pay for drivers was listed as a primary reason for the problem, followed by the length of time required to obtain a commercial driver’s license, and availability of benefits.
Because of the shortage and driver strikes in recent years at First Student in Seattle, the company has raised wages, paying between $26 and $31 an hour. In fall 2018, the range was between $18 and $25.
“The rates at this point seem to be very competitive,” said Jamie Fleming, a spokesperson for Teamsters Local 174, the union representing First Student drivers in Seattle.
Pre-pandemic, the joke used to be that First Student would train the drivers so that they could get their commercial license and work at King County Metro, said Fleming. But with the enhanced wages and benefits, “I don’t know if that’s the case anymore,” she said.
Other issues, including mandatory vaccination requirements from the state, could be at play. In mid-August, Gov. Jay Inslee announced he was requiring all public, private and charter school employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs. The mandate includes bus drivers.
Two drivers recently quit over the mandate in Issaquah, said district spokesperson Lesha Engels. Around 20 drivers in Seattle quit in the weeks before school began, for a mixture of reasons including the vaccine requirements, health concerns and because they had found new work during school closures.
The first weeks of school are typically when the delays are worst. The school district messaged some parents on the eve of the first day encouraging alternative transportation plans for the first week of school.
In past years, the consequences of the delays have been more than just inconvenience. Parents reported their small children were left stranded in the dark after they were dropped off by buses heading home hours late, or kept away from emergency medication while in transit, according to a Seattle Times investigation.
Last spring, after Inslee’s order requiring school reopenings, the driver shortage became such an obstacle that the district only offered transportation to those it was federally obligated to transport, including some students with disabilities. Scores of kids were forced to stay online because their parents couldn’t find another way to transport them.
Parents with years of experience in the district have come to expect these hiccups, forming neighborhood rideshare groups. But not everyone was up-to-speed on these delays this year.
Russell Pendergraft, a single parent who just enrolled his daughter at Denny International Middle School, says he has no family or a close network when the bus fails. It’s worrisome, he said, given his work as a contractor who is sent out to conduct investigations of emergency gas and power main breaks.
After weeks of issues getting his daughter registered for the bus, Pendergraft had to drive his daughter to school and back this week, and has started speaking with other parents about a carpool.
“I’m unwilling to have my daughter miss that much school so I’ll continue driving her,” he wrote in a Facebook message response to The Seattle Times on Friday.
Traffic around schools for pickup exacerbates the problem. Fifteen minutes after the afternoon bell at Denny Middle on Friday, some school buses hadn’t even made it into the bus loading zones.
Mary Ellen Russell, a parent of a student at Cascadia Elementary, has watched the district’s transportation struggles up close over the years as a member of a city commission on school traffic issues.
She’s seen three different leaders of the transportation department come and go, each with good ideas about how to work around the problems. But the investment hasn’t been there for improvements.
“Everyone who I work with there wants to make things work for students,” Russell said. “But it’s hard. The transportation department knows what needs to happen to fix these issues, but SPS has a lot of issues to fix.”
Delays spiked in 2017 when the School Board, over some warnings from district employees, approved school bell times that made it difficult for drivers to staff multiple routes.
In 2019, an external review of the district’s transportation department found many critical and longstanding problems with oversight and communication, including little to no reliance on data to drive decision-making and an overall “lack of urgency to change.” It also found the district used an insufficient process to attract bidders for a school-bus contract beyond First Student.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Russell drove her daughter to school in the morning after the bus didn’t show. There have also been routing issues: Her daughter’s bus trips home have taken over an hour, even though the school is just over a mile away, and the bus passes the end of their street before heading to its first stop. The department told Russell it would take a few weeks in order to process a request for an earlier stop, she said.
There was one bright spot on Friday. The morning bus finally showed up, about 10 minutes late.
“We were happy to see it,” she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that the Lake Washington School District is reducing bus routes.
Staff photographer Bettina Hansen contributed reporting to this story.