Verona Area High School students return after 11 months

Students get off a bus at the south entrance of the high school on Tuesday, Feb. 9. Students in grades 6-12 are returning to the physical classroom after nearly 11 months of being out for summer break and virtual learning.

Verona Area School District students could spend more time on buses or start school earlier or later if it doesn’t fill a third of its needed bus driver positions by fall.

The district is facing a shortage of bus drivers that administration and the contracted bus service, Badger Bus, have tried to remedy with sign-on bonuses, higher wages and paid commercial driver’s license training. Even with the incentives, the district still faces a deficit of 10-12 bus drivers from its needed 32-34 – and should that gap not be made up, administrators will have to get creative, assistant superintendent of business services Chad Wiese told the Press.

Those solutions might include reducing the number of routes needed by “triple-routing” instead of having drivers run two full routes each morning and afternoon, or changing the pairing of routes for different schools. Those routing changes could result in shifts to the start and end times of the school day to accommodate longer routes or encouraging families who qualify for transportation to opt out and take their own children to school.

Whatever solutions the district chooses, it’s going to try to make those that are least disruptive to the school operations work first, Wiese said.

“The problem is certainly real – if anything, it’s slightly worse than what it was when we had school wrap up in the spring,” he said. “Just like many districts, it’s our plan to bring back all of our students, every day, five days a week … which means we’ll have to get to an almost pre-pandemic number of drivers.”

The effort to recruit bus drivers is a recurring issue for both the district and the transportation industry.

In January, as the district was looking to bring back a percentage of its grades 3-12 students who opted for the phased return to in-person, Badger Bus owner John Meier and district transportation coordinator John Bremmer started a campaign to recruit new drivers after some who had driven the year prior chose not to return right away, or at all. At that time, Meier told the Press they had started to offer a $2,500 sign-on bonus and were using other full-time staff within Badger Bus to help fill gaping shortages.

Some of the health measures implemented on buses helped bring people back who might have been hesitant, Meier told the Press last winter. Bremmer said many of those measures, such as having windows open for airflow and requiring masks on buses, worked at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and will continue into the fall.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t create the industry-wide shortage, it has exacerbated the problem. Much like the service industry, shortages of workers have been a national issue, and recruiting drivers with either a commercial driver’s license or a desire to obtain one was tough even before the pandemic, Meier said.

“We’ve been dealing with this for quite a while, and we’ve been having to be creative in Verona and Madison to get that done,” Meier said. “We’re coming into all of our contracts (with school districts), we’re going to be short everywhere, and it’s going to be a challenge.”

Badger Bus had the ability to shift some drivers around to fill gaps, but only to an extent, Meier said. The people who drive buses in the Verona area want to drive for the district, he added, and it’s hard to steer people away from the district for which they want to drive.

In the meantime, district administrators will work to find efficiencies within its routing to make the most of each bus on the street, Wiese said, as well as retaining the 22 staff members Badger Bus has allocated to it.

Any student who is eligible for a bus ride will still receive one, Wiese said, but their rides to school might be longer, especially for students who live in rural areas of the district. The district has a rule it tries to abide by when creating routes that no student is on a bus for more than 45 minutes, but that rule might not be feasible for every student if routes need to be longer, he said.

The district might also consider new route pairings for buses by having Badger Ridge Middle School and Verona Area High School students placed together, or doing triple-routing. Running three routes instead of two could push elementary school start times earlier and high school start times later, Wiese explained, but it’s an option the district wants to avoid.

And if the district is still short of drivers, there might need to be some days when buses arrive after the morning bell, or pick up students later in the afternoon after a driver finishes a route, he said.

Wiese said having the community step up to be a school bus driver, or help recruit them, is a new form of “civic duty.”

“Come help our kids get to school,” Wiese added. “Whatever we can do to get drivers to drive for Badger Bus is No. 1 at the moment.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kwethal@wisconsinmediagroup.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.

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