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Every day, Blaine activities director Shannon Gerrety says, is a new game of transportation whack-a-mole. One problem arises and as soon as it's solved, another pops up.

The lingering effects of the COVID-19 shutdown of 2020 are still front and center in the world of high school extracurriculars. And no issue has been more problematic in high school athletic departments than transporting student-athletes to and from games and meets.

The lack of available school bus drivers has been well-documented in local and national news reports, and the issue is even more pronounced in afterschool events. Often, bus schedules are mere suggestions as cancellations are frequent.

Remedies often call for creativity. It may be sharing a bus with another team or even another school, rounding up vans and van drivers, or even leaning on parents to pick up the slack and their car keys.

"It's a full-time job, just getting kids to and from games," Gerrety said. "Talk to any AD across the metro and they'll tell you busing is our number one issue. We're all scrambling."

At St. Anthony High School, activities director Troy Urdahl said they've had "next to zero after-school bus transportation."

"Unless it's an evening event where route drivers can get back in time, we've been left to find alternative resolutions," he said. "We've been training a significant number of our staff on our utility [vans] and have asked families for help. Busing has always been a concern, but this year is unprecedented."

Many school leaders say they have some transportation concerns, but the depth of the problem varies.

"Our bus company is doing a pretty good job so far," Elk River AD Mike Cunningham said. "But we're doing the bare minimum."

Gerrety said he has taken steps he previously rarely considered, such as leaning on other schools to get his student-athletes to their destination.

"We had Minnetonka here for a ninth-grade football game and I asked [Minnetonka AD] Ted Schultz if our 10th-grade team could ride on their bus to get to their game back at Minnetonka," he said.

On another occasion, Blaine had a volleyball team scheduled to play at a north metro school that was also the destination of Anoka's tennis team. With only one bus available, the two teams shared the ride.

Two teams, two sports, two schools, one bus. Not optimal, but it worked.

What makes the situation even more urgent is the immediacy. Athletic directors begin each day with their fingers crossed, hoping their schedules follow script but ready to zig when bus availability zags.

"We have a list we're always ready to activate, telling parents 'We don't have transportation today. You will have to pick your son or daughter up,' " Gerrety admitted.

Said Minnehaha Academy activities director Josh Thurow: "We wait for that call [from the bus company] and if we don't get it by 2 p.m., we have to tell the kids, 'Sorry, we don't have a bus for you today.' We're playing it all by ear."

So far, asking parents to transport their children hasn't been met with much resistance. After dealing with pandemic restrictions last year, many parents are choosing to continue to drive their sons or daughters to events.

"That's one of the few positives to come out of COVID," Cunningham said. "Parents would drive last year to avoid possible contact tracing. A lot of parents have just continued to drive their kids."

Complaints have been few, a relief for many ADs.

"It can be hard for some families to adjust their schedules because we're asking many parents to leave work early," Urdahl said. "But we've received a lot more grace and understanding than I think we expected."

Bus driver Axel Gessell spoke on the phone to his bus company as the Blaine boys’ and girls’ freshmen soccer teams boarded the same bus to go to two different schools for away matches.
Bus driver Axel Gessell spoke on the phone to his bus company as the Blaine boys’ and girls’ freshmen soccer teams boarded the same bus to go to two different schools for away matches.

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Officials shortage, too

Bus drivers represent just one of the essential personnel shortages this fall in prep sports. A lack of officials and referees, a problem discussed often in recent years, has spiked again.

Official organizers have requested that football programs reschedule at least one game to a non-traditional day to alleviate the glut of requests on Fridays.

"Class 6A has been asked to move one or two games off of the traditional Friday night," Mounds View AD Jim Galvin said. "That's why you're seeing more Thursday and Saturday games this year."

There have been or will be 197 football games scheduled on days other than Friday this season, including 29 on Oct. 14, the final Thursday of the regular season.

"I'm the assigner for Minneapolis and I'm a referee, too," Thurow said. "We just don't have an extra crew available if a COVID situation would come up."

The reason for the lack of officials are many, but two stand out: A number of longtime officials who sat out last year due to virus concerns have decided to stay on the sidelines. And a perceived rise in belligerent fan behavior has led some to put away their whistles for good.

Schools are having an especially hard time finding enough officials for soccer. Many games below the varsity level have been played with just two officials and occasionally just one.

"I've had parents come up to me and ask 'What's the deal with officials?' " Cunningham said. "I tell them, 'I'd love to have you officiate.' And they say, 'Oh, my ... it's that bad?' "

The pinch is already being felt in winter sports, months before the start of the season.

Galvin, who sets the boys' and girls' basketball schedule for the Suburban East Conference, said he recently moved four nights of conference play away from the usual Tuesdays and Fridays to help.

"Everybody plays on those nights and the number of officials on those nights are just not there," he said.

Added Thurow, who also officiates basketball: "All those officials that left? We're not getting them back. And we haven't been able to capture the heart and minds of the younger people."