As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, Three Rivers Community Schools (TRCS) administrators have had to make difficult choices concerning transportation services for their students. Bus route cancellations are not unusual, not in 2022, not in Southwest Michigan but as common as they have become, they’re no easier to deal with.
TRCS Interim Superintendent Nikki Nash knows that as well as anyone. The district was forced to cancel Routes 11 and 19 “indefinitely” weeks before winter break, impacting hundreds of students, with parents and guardians scrambling to find alternative means to get their kids to and from school. While Route 11 was restored on Tuesday, Route 19 is still out of commission, and approximately 168 students remain in the lurch.
Busses 11 and 19 both transport students from Andrews and Park Elementary, as well as Three Rivers Middle School and High School, with Bus 11 often ferrying 77 students in the morning, and 86 students in the afternoon, while Bus 19 takes 64 kids in the morning, and another 104 in the afternoon.
While Three Rivers may not be dealing with double digit bus route cancellations like their neighbors to the north, COVID-19 and staff shortages are wreaking havoc just the same. Nash said Three Rivers is utilizing every available employee to ensure as many students as possible have reliable transportation, but it’s not been nearly enough. Where in years past there were four substitute bus drivers, this year there are none.
“(In December), we were just to a point that we were utilizing every person we had within our transportation department to drive,” Nash said, “but then we got hit with illnesses, which are unplanned and often come at the last minute, so we had to look at (cancelling) bus routes to avoid sending out 6:30 a.m. phone calls notifying (parents) that transportation was cancelled for that day.”
Some parents have questioned why routes 11 and 19 were chosen for cancellation over other routes both on social media and to Watershed Voice directly, voicing concerns about whether students from low income families were being disproportionately impacted. Nash said a number of factors were considered before a decision was made, and there was “no easy way” to address this ongoing problem.
“We looked at ridership, how many students were on that bus, in the Fall we were able to disperse students to other buses (when routes were cancelled), but (Bus 11 and 19) were high capacity, so we could not distribute them to other bus routes,” Nash said.
“So we looked at schools impacted, and there was no easy way to decide to be honest with you because our buses don’t pick up based on schools. I think there was some false understanding that ‘this is a Hoppin bus, this is a Park bus, this is a Norton bus,’ most of our riderships have multiple schools on them, so the least amount of students we could impact, and ones that we could quickly get back on the road once we had a bus driver for those.”
Others wondered aloud whether routes were cancelled based on which neighborhoods would provide the least amount of negative feedback, an assertion Nash vehemently denies.
“No, absolutely not. As educators, we went into the education world for all kids, so it was a very hard decision to even make,” she said. “We’ve done everything we can to keep buses on the road but we simply don’t have the manpower. In a district that is above the 50 percent rate for free and reduced or at-risk students, there was no easy way to say which students — we certainly didn’t go through line by line, and say ‘oh yeah, they are (at-risk), they are not,’ not at all was that the situation.
“We have low income based areas all over our district. And again, we went into education for kids, and the last thing that is on our mind is picking those that may be the quietest. That is not the case at all.”
The administration is hopeful that “speed recruiting” efforts, which are scheduled to take place at the school’s administration building on Wednesday, January 19 at 5 p.m. and Wednesday, February 2 at 5 p.m., will help the district fill several open positions, including that of bus drivers. CDL certification is required to drive a school bus but the district does provide classes/training. Anyone interested can attend either of the aforementioned dates or contact the school directly for more information.
Alek Haak-Frost is executive editor of Watershed Voice.