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Minneapolis and St. Paul schools are scrambling to find solutions to an urgent school bus driver shortage, including asking parents to drive their children to school and offering to reimburse them for the expense.

Minneapolis has nearly 50 vacancies, representing a third of the bus drivers it needs. St. Paul is short between 40 and 60 drivers for its 274 slots.

Families in Minneapolis have received messages from the district, urging them to opt out of busing if they're able. Those who can't should expect "sporadic" bus service this fall, the messages said.

While the scarcity of bus drivers isn't a new problem or one limited to the Twin Cities, it's yet another issue in education exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And it comes just as the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 threatens to upend the sense of normalcy that families and educators were hoping for this fall.

In past years, the districts have been able to contract with private bus companies to fill any gaps. But those companies are also seeing far fewer employees since the pandemic.

"As we sit and look at it, it is a chasm that we can't fill," said Lisa Beck, executive director of transportation services for Minneapolis schools. "We're having to look at a variety of options."

Minneapolis raised the hourly wage for school bus drivers in 2019 to encourage more applicants. And last spring, when in-person classes resumed, the district began offering travel reimbursements to families who drove their students to school. Only 78 families participated then. This year, about 1,000 families have expressed interest in the reimbursements of 56 cents per mile.

Still, even if they were all to take their children off the bus routes, "that's a drop in the bucket," Beck said.

At a school board meeting earlier this month, Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Ed Graff said the buses may be delayed because of the driver shortage, causing students to be late for school. Routes had to be designed to fill the seats, so social distancing won't be possible.

The district's new comprehensive design, which goes into effect this fall and cut 20 bus routes, helps but doesn't solve the problem.

"Had we not looked at trying to save some transportation resources, our shortage of drivers would have been much worse," said Karen DeVet, the district's senior operating officer who oversees transportation.

The shortage also raises concerns about equity, especially if route delays cause students on the bus to miss the first part of the school day, said Heather Anderson, the director of organizing for the Advancing Equity Coalition. The group aims to ensure equitable education in Minneapolis schools.

"If you have the ability to transport your kids, you can create a different reality for your kids inside MPS," she said.

District officials said they are keeping in mind students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch when making any route changes.

Pandemic pressures

The pandemic brought about a labor shortage across many sectors nationwide, but it hit the school bus driving workforce especially hard. Not only were many bus drivers over the age of 65 and thus more susceptible to the virus, stay-at-home orders triggered a boom in the need for other driving jobs, including package and food delivery.

Shelly Jonas is executive director of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association, which represents about 130 companies in the state. She estimates 30% of available school bus driver positions are vacant, or about three times as many as a year ago, she said.

COVID-19 is the biggest factor. People have been nervous to apply for jobs only to see schools shut down and their pay put in jeopardy, she said. Many who drove in 2020-21 quit during the school year.

"Schools closed and they just walked away," she said.

Districts are offering higher financial incentives — Minneapolis is now dangling a $3,000 bonus for new drivers — in competition for the same limited labor pool.

Minneapolis Public Schools is working with other districts across the state to bring the driver shortage issue to the legislative level to find broader solutions, Graff said.

Other solutions include staggering start times, which Minneapolis has done and St. Paul is considering, along with expanded walk zones for its high schoolers.

St. Paul officials have yet to finalize routes and bus stops, but changes are coming.

High schoolers can expect to walk up to a mile to stops that will attract as many as 15 to 20 kids and be positioned along more streamlined routes. Parents who in the past have persuaded officials to pick up their kids nearer to their homes will not be so lucky.

"We're going to have to say 'no' a little more this year," said Jackie Turner, the district's chief operations officer.

St. Paul is considering changing start times at five to seven schools. The move would be temporary, Turner said, and would come two years after the district shifted 21 elementary schools to earlier 7:30 a.m. starts.

Turner said families should receive word about their children's bus arrangements by Monday.

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul are also planning to switch some students from yellow buses to passenger vans, which have different driver regulations.

In addition to highlighting the bonus and the benefits of the gig, DeVet is pushing another perk to potential school bus driver candidates.

"Very often, this is the first school employee a child sees in the morning," she said. "It's a position that has a lot of impact to our mission of education."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109