By Jill Draper
In a now-deleted tweet that went viral last month, a teacher in Boston wrote that his high school English class had to use a party bus decked out with multi-colored show lights and a stripper pole in order to avoid canceling a field trip. The school bus driver shortage is widespread, and in some places National Guardsman have been deployed to drive kids to school, while in other places teachers and coaches are being asked to drive the early morning routes.
The situation is not that dire in south Kansas City, but local school districts continue to be affected by the national driver shortage.
“We’re still looking to hire drivers,” said Christina Medina, director of public relations for Center School District. “We have enough, but would like some more.”
That same message was repeated by Kansas City, Hickman Mills and Grandview C-4 districts.
Kansas City Public Schools have re-routed all buses to maximize capacity and run fewer routes, said Elle Moxley, public relations coordinator. She also said the district is partnering with Ride KC (Kansas City Regional Transit) to get a fleet of vans to take students to and from games and activities. These smaller vehicles do not require a commercial driver’s license, so KCPS staff can drive them.
“We need more, but we’ve been able to cover all the routes,” said Marissa Cleaver Wamble, director of public information at Hickman Mills. According to Wamble, teachers continue to schedule field trips to destinations like the Longview campus of the Metropolitan Community College and the Auschwitz Exhibition at Union Station. And the high school band plans to perform at the University of Missouri in Columbia. But younger students are mostly staying in the classroom. “I don’t think elementary schools are really doing a lot of field trips right now,” she said.
Field trips also are down at Center schools, reported Medina, who called it a two-fold issue related to a lack of drivers and Covid health and safety protocols. Field trip requests from teachers have been lower than normal, and any requests are carefully considered. “We haven’t said no to all of them, but we haven’t said yes to all of them,” she stated. “If there are virtual options, we’re going that route. We don’t want to be in a museum, for example, where kids would all be touching the same things.”
The Grandview District is managing by doubling up some routes on days when there are absences among the staff, said Royce Powelson, assistant superintendent of operations and finance, who added that most parents have been patient and understanding. Older students are sometimes being transported in multiple vans driven by staff for various activities, he said. Meanwhile, elementary school students have not been affected as much because their field trips occur mostly in the spring.
Strongtowns.org, a group that advocates for new ways of thinking about community development, acknowledges that many complex factors led to the bus driver shortage, including wage and working conditions that predate the pandemic. But the organization’s website also says this:
“We’ve spent decades closing neighborhood schools, consolidating schools in unwalkable locations, and making our communities more dangerous places for kids to walk and bike, all while public transportation became less frequent and less available. As late as 1969, about half of kids under 15 usually walked or bicycled to school. By 2009, the figure was 13%.”
The English teacher from Boston, Jim Mayers, deleted his party bus tweet because he felt it was drawing too much attention to the tweet itself instead of the many systemic issues facing students across the country. He said it was just meant to give his fellow teachers a laugh. Still, he wrote in a new post, “If it’s gotten people talking about the overall infrastructure of our education system, and the different ways schools are prioritized, then that’s good.”