Disruption to school bus service in Wausau continues, some routes may be canceled

Damakant Jayshi

Officials say a staffing shortage on buses affecting the Wausau School District, which has left many parents frustrated and some students standing out in the cold, will soon be eased, with relief drivers on the way.

The Wausau School District opted for a virtual learning day on Monday, citing dangerously low overnight wind chills as well as shortages of bus drivers. The move, announced on Sunday, came two hours after parents of students at Horace Mann College were told two bus routes were short of bus drivers and would not operate on Monday.

Then on Tuesday, administrators at Stettin Elementary School sent a note to parents and guardians at 8:39 a.m., nine minutes after classes were scheduled to open, informing them that a bus carrying students to school was “not running not this morning”. The post added that the school was “just learning this now” from First Student, the district’s contracted bus service company.

Also on Tuesday, staff at John Muir High School sent a note to parents and guardians at 1 p.m. saying that First Student had told them that buses on two routes serving the school would not be operating and that they would be taking d other arrangements for picking up their children.

Some parents have spoken out on social media and in emails to Wausau Pilot & Review expressing their exasperation with this breaking news from the district.

“We certainly understand the frustration these cancellations have caused our families whose students rely on buses to get to and from school,” said a WSD statement shared by communications and marketing coordinator Diana White. “That said, we want them to know that First Student has now received relief drivers from another First Student location to help run the bus routes in our (d)district.”

According to the WSD, five lines out of 65 have been canceled since Tuesday. For Wednesday afternoon, there is only one canceled route, White said in an email.

As for notifying families of any disruptions, the WSD added that in addition to what First Student is doing to notify affected families, the district will continue to communicate if there are any other route cancellations, “giving them as much warning as possible”. possible so that they can arrange alternate transportation for their student(s).

First Student acknowledged the challenges the disruption has caused for families using the bus service.

“We understand the frustration families feel when there is a service issue,” First Student spokesperson Jen Biddinger told Wausau Pilot & Review via email. “Our goal is to always transport students safely and quickly.”

Biddinger blamed the disruptions on a staff shortage.

“In Wausau, we have to adjust some bus routes at the moment to take into account staff shortages,” she said. “We are working in partnership with the district to try to minimize the impact on students. The crux of the matter remains the continued need for school bus drivers nationwide. Our industry is no different from so many other employment sectors that struggle to fill vacancies.

Biddinger acknowledged that these route adjustments include some cancellations.

“A few lines have been cancelled. Depending on staffing levels, some routes may also need to be combined or doubled,” she said. “While this may cause delays, it allows us to provide transportation service to as many students as possible.”

She declined to name the routes that will be affected.

First Student, she added, continued to actively recruit new drivers to serve the Wausau School District with paid training, a $1,500 sign-up bonus and a starting salary of $18 an hour. .

A surge of COVID-19 infections is impacting bus service in school districts across the country, forcing route cancellations in many areas, according to media reports across the country.

But bus drivers also cite another, “main” cause for the continued shortage of drivers: low wages, followed by lack of hours, benefits and split shifts.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Education, in conjunction with the US Department of Transportation, announced relaxed rules for bus drivers to address the driver shortage.

“The…Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is giving states the option to waive the portion of the Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) skills test that requires candidates to identify “under the hood” engine components,” the joint statement released on said Jan. 4. “All other components of the written and on-road exam will remain.”

The FMCSA waiver, which went into effect on January 3, will expire on March 31 of this year.

Melvin Z. Madore