'A staffing crisis': Michiana schools grapple with driver shortages during omicron surge

·6 min read
Schools across Michiana are feeling the pressure of a national transportation shortage as this winter's surge of COVID-19 infections threatens already low staffing levels.
Schools across Michiana are feeling the pressure of a national transportation shortage as this winter's surge of COVID-19 infections threatens already low staffing levels.

Several schools in southwest Michigan and Indiana made the move to remote learning last week. A common thread among them; transportation staffing.

In a letter to Edwardsburg families on Wednesday, Superintendent James Knoll described efforts to keep the district's already stretched transportation department afloat.

"We were able to combine routes and have qualified administrative personnel drive in order to keep our school district open," Knoll said, alerting families in the same letter that "the district could be closed on short notice at any time."

School closed: Edwardsburg shifts to remote learning citing driver shortage

After rides home were delayed Wednesday, administrators made a quick decision the next morning to close school after yet another driver called off work. The district exercised a remote learning day Friday.

"We do not feel that we (can) combine routes any further, extend driving hours or route length, and provide the high level of safety our district and community has come to expect," Knoll wrote Thursday.

Shortages prompt school closures

Niles Community Schools similarly pivoted from in-person learning last week, moving students to a remote setting on Thursday and Friday, as it also grapples with transportation shortages.

Niles officials described the current shortages schools across the country are facing as "a staffing crisis."

Goshen Community Schools and several others in Indianapolis this week cited student and staff absences, and some the omicron variant specifically, as their reason for suspending in-person instruction.

In an interview with The Tribune on Thursday, Knoll said his district's struggle to fill bus driver positions extends well beyond the pandemic.

Schools for years have felt the weight of a national drivers shortage. Some districts have drawn help this year from the National Guard as the pandemic further stretches already drained fleets.

In Edwardsburg, school officials have advertised openings and implemented signing bonuses, but retaining new drivers for more than a couple weeks has been a challenge.

Transportation shortage: Niles schools finish week with remote learning

"We have a good core and ... we have a great transportation department," Knoll said. "It just happens that everything came together right now."

Though Edwardsburg only had one COVID-positive driver when administrators canceled classes Thursday, isolations caused by the highly contagious omicron variant can further exacerbate departments already stretched thin.

In Indiana, more than 880 school staff reported positive cases of COVID-19 in last week's update of state health department data, nearly doubling past records set earlier in the school year. The dashboard does not publicly disclose how many are quarantining due to coronavirus-like symptoms or exposure as a close contact.

Officials for Goshen Community Schools, which transitioned to e-learning on Friday due to a "high number of student and staff absences," told families they hope to return to in-person learning after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But, the district also advised parents to keep watch for updates given "the next two weeks are likely to continue to have increased numbers of COVID cases."

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In southwest Michigan, Cass County reported a 31.5% positivity rate for the week Dec. 28 to Jan. 3, according to the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department.

Berrien County's positivity rate is at 34%, county medical director Rex Cabaltica said in a Spectrum Health Lakeland Facebook update this week.

Spectrum Health Lakeland President Loren Hamel, joining Cabaltica in the update, said he expects the latest omicron wave to peak quickly.

"Be careful. Hang in there another couple of weeks," Hamel told viewers. "We expect that this phase of the pandemic is going to start improving over the next couple of weeks."

Districts push to stay open

While staffing has been a challenge for some districts, others have been able to stay open for in-person learning despite a record number of COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

Indiana Education Secretary Katie Jenner said in a Wednesday morning State Board of Education meeting that nearly 90% of the state's 1.1 million students attended school in person the week most returned from winter break.

About 3% of students were virtual due to COVID-19, the education secretary said, which represents a slight increase from the 1% to 2% average Indiana schools saw before break.

Setting new records: COVID-19 cases spike in Michiana schools

In Penn-Harris-Madison schools where cases among staff have nearly doubled since winter break, district spokeswoman Lucha Ramey said there have been no discussions of going virtual.

"Going into the school year, we went in with a mindset that we were not going to go virtual," Ramey said. "We just saw how important it was for students to be in school."

By the end of the fall semester, P-H-M reported 159 total cases among teachers and staff dating back to the start of the school year. That number had jumped to 291 by Friday morning, according to data from the district.

Of the more than 60 staff that had tested positive between Jan. 4 to Jan. 13, just four belonged to the transportation department. The greatest number, 18, were among teachers from schools across the district.

Ramey said everyone from hourly staff to administrators have jumped in where needed, such as serving up meals to students in lunch lines. But, not everyone can pitch in when it comes to filling transportation absences.

School bus drivers need to have their commercial driver's license, or CDL, and meet certain training requirements in order to transport students. In P-H-M, a number of administrators, mechanics and front office staff have kept their license over the years to drive in an emergency situation.

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"I don't ever think that they thought of a pandemic," Ramey said. "But, obviously, it's been very helpful to have as many staff licensed with CDL licenses as possible."

This semester, the district is providing data for the first time on the number of students and staff asked to quarantine or allowed to return to school after being identified as a close contact to someone with COVID-19.

Recent changes in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance allow students and staff meeting certain vaccination and masking requirements to return to school earlier or forego quarantine altogether when exposed to the virus.

The week of Jan. 3 to Jan. 7, for example, P-H-M identified 602 close contacts, but of those, only 119 were asked to quarantine.

"I think everyone has realized that we have to manage as best we can without going to a shutdown," Ramey said. "We have the mentality that we will do whatever we can to keep schools open."

Email South Bend Tribune education reporter Carley Lanich at clanich@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @carleylanich.

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Michiana schools respond to bus driver, labor shortage omicron surge