School bus driver shortage forces Anchorage, Mat-Su to reduce service

The Anchorage School District is dealing with such a severe bus driver shortage that nearly all students will be without bus service for weeks at a time, officials announced last week.

There are only enough drivers to serve 7,000 of the district’s 20,000 eligible bus riders at a time, according to deputy superintendent Mark Stock.

Bus service will be available to families for three weeks at a time, followed by six-week periods without service, on a rotating basis, officials said. It’s unclear how long the bus route suspensions will persist, Stock said.

The news comes just before school is set to start this week and while gasoline prices are at historic highs.

A similar shortage of drivers is forcing the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District to implement rolling transportation cancellations, the district announced. Classes begin this week.

The driver shortage will require rolling bus route cancellations for the beginning of the school year, Mat-Su Schools Superintendent Randy Trani said in a letter to parents.

In Anchorage, the suspension of bus routes will affect all general education students but won’t affect special education students. Students who live within 1½ miles of a school also won’t be affected since they weren’t receiving bus service before.

In addition, the district has condensed bus routes for efficiency, meaning students will need to walk farther to those stops than in past years.

“Even though we continue to make progress retaining more and hiring new bus drivers, the situation isn’t improving fast enough,” superintendent Jharrett Bryantt told reporters during a briefing Aug. 9.

The school district was 71 bus drivers short on Aug. 9, according to deputy superintendent Stock.

“We’ve implemented some aggressive recruiting strategies and retention strategies,” Stock said. “We believe those are showing some success.”

But that takes time, he said, noting staff shortages are happening nationwide.

The district conducts a free, three-week training program for new drivers and pays salary during the training, said acting chief operating officer Rob Holland.

Stock said the district is looking into giving gas cards to families who need additional support, which the district did last year in $50 increments — though this year’s gas card amount will probably be lower so the district can reach more families.

A bus driver shortage isn’t new to Anchorage; the district contended with a shortage last year as well. But the impacts of this year’s shortage are significantly more widespread.

Issues with staffing in the district stretch beyond just a shortage of bus drivers. Several schools don’t have cafeteria managers, and in those situations, students will be provided a brown bag lunch instead of hot meals, school district spokesperson Lisa Miller said.

As of Aug. 9, the district’s hiring dashboard showed 375 open positions in various departments, from student nutrition operations to speech-language pathology. That number is “a little higher than normal,” but the district’s applicant pool is lower, Stock said.

 

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