Aug. 7—Troy Gravel used his Class B driver's license for several years while coaching high school and middle-school soccer in North Carolina, where one of a coach's responsibilities was to drive the team bus to games and back.
Gravel moved to Maine in 2016 and settled in Brewer a year later, and while he continued to coach, his bus-driving skills weren't needed so he was ready to let his Class B license expire come November.
But an email he got from Brewer School Department athletic administrator Dave Utterback prompted him to change his mind. It asked Brewer coaches to consider getting licensed to drive their team buses to help address an ongoing shortage of bus drivers, which has been exacerbated by drivers leaving the job amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
That shortage has forced some schools to have to go to remote learning at times or cancel classes altogether due to transportation issues. It also has disrupted after-school sports schedules.
"Literally a week ago I thought, 'I've got to renew but I'm not going to because I don't have to drive buses up here'," said Gravel, now the assistant girls soccer coach at Brewer High School. "Then I got the email saying they were hurting for bus drivers and 'Can the coaches drive?' and I said, 'OK, I'm not going to let my license expire after all.'"
Brewer offers 12 high school and middle-school athletic programs during the fall, and Gravel is one of approximately a dozen coaches in the system who already have indicated an interest in getting the license required to drive their teams to fall sports contests, Utterback said.
Most of those events are held during the mid- to late afternoon when regular bus drivers are busy returning students home from school.
"Everybody travels, every team we have has a need to get somewhere and I don't want to not be able to get them where they need to go," said Utterback, who also plans to secure his own Class B license to help Brewer's teams get around.
Utterback said based on his experience in directing teams to the proper parking lot at Brewer Community School for large track and field meets that some Maine schools already have coaches double as bus drivers. Most of those team vehicles he has seen are passenger vans used to transport smaller teams.
At Brewer, where bus services are contracted through Cyr Bus Lines, coaches who earn their Class B licenses would be hired by the bus company to drive the team runs.
The licensing process begins with a written test that leads to a learner's permit, followed by time spent training with an already licensed driver leading to the final driver's exam, which includes a road test.
"It would help us greatly, and we have the ability to train them," Mike Cyr, president of Cyr Bus Lines, said. "At the end of the last school year back in June there was talk about [training coaches] but I don't know if we have anybody started yet.
"We're all for it, they've just got to be trained and they've got to be qualified."
Cyr said bus-driving jobs are hard to fill because of the availability of full-time jobs elsewhere and the fact the driving shift is split between morning and afternoon sessions.
"To get somebody to cut their day in half to come in at 1:30 and work to 3:30 is extremely difficult," he said. "We often send managers and mechanics out and try to double up as much as we can."
The addition of coaches to the bus-driving pool might not benefit just the sports season when they are steering their own teams from game to game, as some may opt to continue driving as a part-time job at other times of the school year.
"The bottom line is we can sit back and accept that we're going to have trouble getting a team to and from an event or we can try to find a way to make it better and not have that be a reason to have to postpone and reschedule," Utterback said.