Ketchikan school buses delayed as drivers quarantine and isolate for COVID

Schoenbar Middle School. (KRBD file photo)
Schoenbar Middle School is shown in this file photo. It’s one of three Ketchikan schools affected by school bus delays. (KRBD file photo)

A shortage of drivers is reportedly causing delays along some of  Ketchikan’s school bus routes. District officials say it’s a symptom of larger staffing challenges throughout the school district, some of which are tied to the pandemic.

Ketchikan’s interim superintendent, Melissa Johnson, says the private bus company First Student called Tuesday evening to say that five of its bus drivers were out. They were either in quarantine or positive for COVID-19.

“And so we needed to figure out a plan. So what he was going to do — and this is Michael Johnson, who’s the director of our First Student here in Ketchikan — he was going to drive a bus, he was going to have the dispatch drive a bus. So then we were gonna look at what to do with the other bus routes.

The superintendent says the solution they settled on was combining three routes that had the lowest ridership. That allowed them to escape with only minor delays: 10 minutes for Ketchikan Charter School and Schoenbar Middle School students, and 20 minutes for students at Point Higgins Elementary on the north side of town.

Some special education bus routes were also reportedly combined. The delays are expected to last until at least the Thanksgiving break.

But Johnson says they’re not just short on drivers: there are more than 30 open positions across the district.

“We have paraprofessional jobs open, we have a shortage in the amount of subs that we normally have, we have aides that normally would be doing other jobs in our schools having to substitute. I have administrators subbing in rooms right now,” she said. “Even at our district office, we had district office staff go to schools and sub.”

She says the constant all-hands-on-deck scramble is weighing on morale.

“I always tell people my first day of school felt like the last day of normal years,” she said. “We’re exhausted. All of us are exhausted.”

Johnson says anyone with a commercial driver’s license who might be available as a substitute driver should contact First Student. A spokesperson for First Student says the company is offering nearly $21 an hour and a $1,500 sign-on bonus for drivers in Ketchikan.

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