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Students get off the bus at Zachary Lane Elementary School in Plymouth.

Superintendent David Engstrom’s most recent update to parents on an ongoing lack of transportation in the Robbinsdale School District was a dour one.

“It is past time for me to acknowledge that, when it comes to transportation, we can’t give you a date by which everything in Robbinsdale Area Schools will be ‘back to normal,’” Engstrom wrote in a letter addressed to district families. “It seems increasingly likely that, for many reasons, public schools – including ours – may never return to the way we knew them before (COVID-19).”

Those words echoed what one Robbinsdale mother of two had suspected weeks earlier.

“At this point I’m losing confidence,” Michelle Vaith told the Sun Post in mid-September. “I’m planning for at least until winter break.”

According to Engstrom’s letter parents should now plan transportation alternatives for the rest of the school year, regardless of transportation status.

1,400 left at the bus stop

As of Oct. 5, at least 12% of students in the district have been left without transportation due to an inability to cover 12 bus routes. Shannon Swanson, the school district’s community relations coordinator, said an estimated 1,486 students out of a total enrollment of about 12,000 are still without busing.

Vaith, like many other parents in the district, joins a long line of cars in the mornings and afternoons in front of schools. On most days the queue takes 45 minutes to get through, but Vaith has had days where the wait has topped an hour. To work through the line in a reasonable time, administrations have allowed students to be released early, a solution that Vaith recognizes as both practical, but also disheartening.

“My third-grader alternates through music, gym and art for her last class of the day,” Vaith said. “So she’s disappointed. She keeps saying ‘Why do you always come early? I want to do the end of the day.’”

Finding drivers, quickly

Because of the shortage, the district reports that there are no substitute staff members to cover routes should a driver fall ill, and there are not enough drivers rostered to offer extra shifts.

“This means that any family, on any given day, could be impacted by the bus driver shortage,” Engstrom wrote.

Swanson said more than 30 individuals were in the process of getting licensed through the district’s contractor Durham School Services, but it would take at least two months until the new hires were ready to drive.

The issue has caused varied discussions among district parents on social media, whose feelings ranged from empathy to disgust. Vaith, for her part, said she understood the issue had a very real cause, but believed the district improperly communicated the issue. She learned her children didn’t have a bus after she had put them to bed the night before the first day of school. The next day, she learned the issue would be ongoing for at least one week. After that week, it became one month.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it’s not the schools, it’s not the principals ... but shame on the school district for not planning this ahead of time,” Vaith said. “The communication timeline was just totally unacceptable.”

In his letter, Engstrom faced the charge.

“We were over-optimistic, or perhaps unrealistic, when we told you we might be able to improve the busing situation yet this fall,” Engstrom wrote.

Ongoing shortage

The district is not alone in busing woes. In August, a survey conducted by three national school bus associations found that 51% of respondents across the country described their local bus driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate.”

Durham, a company in its first year servicing the Robbinsdale School District, advertised a large swath of openings in early summer, with weekly recruitment open houses, on-the-spot interviews, and referral and sign-on bonuses worth thousands of dollars. Its contract with District 281 is set to expire in July 2023.

Durham served more than one million students in 32 states before the pandemic. Since September, Durham has remained quiet about Robbinsdale, which Swanson said is due to the nature of its partnership with the district.

“Durham Transportation is our vendor and we work together. Our district uses ‘we’ as we work together as a team,” Swanson said. “In the case of this issue, multiple departments are a part of the task force, using a collaborative approach. This is the way we have worked with our vendors in the past as well.”

A spokesperson for Durham did not respond to a request for comment.

Redrawing bus routes?

A month after the school year began, Robbinsdale Schools is attempting solutions to bridge the unknown gap of time it will take until busing normalcy returns. It begins with a high likelihood of redrawing bus routes in the district.

Parents are now being asked to fill out an opt-out survey where they can voluntarily remove their children from busing for the year. Results of the survey, which closes Friday, Oct. 15, will help the district decide which routes can be redrawn.

“If you have the ability to opt out of school bus transportation for the year, we need to know so we can fill bus seats with students whose families do not have that option,” Engstrom wrote.

The district is also working with Metro Transit to provide free bus passes to students without transportation. It’s also implementing a van service for athletics and other extracurriculars, and considering extra staff an hour before and after school to supervise children arriving and departing from the parent drop-off line.

For parents like Vaith, the cabin of her car has become a quasi-workspace as she’s waited in pickup queues, dialing into remote meetings. She said, it’s difficult to think about the busing issue as anything more than temporary for herself and for those parents whose jobs are less flexible.

“I’m fortunate because we’re figuring it out,” Vaith said.

At the same time, she’s trying to remain open-minded and forgiving, like her kindergartener, who hasn’t been too rattled by the situation simply because he doesn’t know any better.

“From a kid’s perspective, they’ve had the craziest experience,” said Vaith of the last two years. “They’re aware of it, and they shouldn’t be. They’ve been through so much already.”

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