Spokane schools coping with bus driver shortage, vaccine exemption requests

<p><p>Five weeks into the new year, Spokane Public Schools is struggling with two vexing problems not of its own making: How are some children getting to school and how safe will they be when they arrive?</p></p><p><p>Every day, hundreds of children are dealing with bus routes delayed for up to two hours, thanks to a national driver shortage that has hit the district harder than others because it doesn’t own its own buses.</p></p><p><p>At the same time, the district must interview hundreds of employees who have submitted exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee.</p></p><p><p>“These are interesting times for sure,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said Tuesday.</p></p><p><p>Both problems were thrust upon the district before the school year began.</p></p><p><p>With the delta variant on the rise and some parents questioning Inslee’s mask mandate, times were already challenging.</p></p><p><p>Now the district is stretching its staff to deal with both problems. Some employees have been driving vans to pick up students.</p></p><p><p>Meanwhile, Swinyard said the human resources department is “working around the clock” to interview staff to determine the appropriate accommodations for those who have been granted the vaccine exemption.</p></p><p><p>That’s probably the bigger concern for parents. However, Swinyard said the district is working “intentionally” as it interviews hundreds of employees, one by one.</p></p><p><p>That will take time. Of the district’s roughly 5,200 full- and part-time employees, about 400 have applied for and been granted exemptions. Another 350 or so have yet to declare their intentions.</p></p><p><p>It’s assumed that many of the latter will request the exemption, leaving more triage work for the HR department.</p></p><p><p>Depending on the employee’s job, accommodations will run the gamut, Swinyard said,</p></p><p><p>For example, a secretary sitting behind a plexiglas shield might simply need to wear an N95 mask. Employees working with health-impaired children could face reassignment.</p></p><p><p>For those in between – including most teachers – some form of enhanced personalized protective equipment, or PPE, “would be a common accommodation,” Swinyard said.</p></p><p><p>Vaccinated staff, except for those working with medically fragile students, may continue to wear cloth masks.</p></p><p><p>The district is currently down 20 full-time employees – those who have left the district in the wake of the mandate – and 80 part-timers whose status has yet to be confirmed.</p></p><p><p>Now add a bus driver shortage that has afflicted the district since the school year began. On any given day, eight to 12 of the district’s 105 routes are affected by significant delays.</p></p><p><p>The district recently sent out letters to families to prepare for the possibility that certain routes will be up to two hours late through the end of October.</p></p><p><p>“That date is an estimate, because we don’t want families to get their hopes up,” Swinyard said.</p></p><p><p>It’s unclear how many children are directly affected by the late pickups, or how many parents are unable to drive them to school.</p></p><p><p>However, Swinyard said the district is spreading out the inconvenience “to the greatest extent possible” across the district.</p></p><p><p>“We didn’t want to impact any area more than others,” Swinyard said.</p></p><p><p>Unlike most districts in the area, Spokane Public Schools doesn’t own buses. It contracts with Durham for busing services.</p></p><p><p>Other school districts in the region appear to be coping with the driver shortage.</p></p><p><p>“We’ve been stretched thin at times, but we haven’t missed any routes,” said Marla Nunberg, communications director for the Central Valley School District.</p></p><p><p>Help is on the way. Durham has 34 new drivers in training – enough, Swinyard hopes, to fill the routes and leave some margin for illnesses and other factors.</p></p><p><p>But Durham faces the same wild card as the district: How many more employees will either resign or seek exemptions?</p></p><p><p>Fiscally, at least, there will be some compensation. According to the district’s contract with Durham, the latter is accountable for filling the contracted routes; if they go unfilled, the district will be reimbursed.</p></p>