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A new school year kicked off Thursday in the St. Paul Public Schools with students and families navigating late-breaking transportation changes and disruptions, and many parents still yearning to put their children in the district's new online school.

This week, the state's second-largest district announced it would be shifting more of its high schoolers to Metro Transit because it did not have enough drivers for yellow school buses.

Elementary and middle school students would be the priority for those traditional routes, officials said. But early reports on opening day found many high school students were not yet seizing on the Metro Transit option and were going to school in cars instead, Superintendent Joe Gothard said.

That was the case at Central High, where officials plan to start the year giving breaks to kids who arrive late.

Troubles were reported elsewhere.

In the Battle Creek-Highwood Hills area, Timothy Frankland, who has two daughters attending district magnet schools, learned 15 minutes before one bus was to arrive that the route was canceled because a driver wasn't available. Then, a bus set to pick up his other daughter skipped the stop and arrived at Capitol Hill magnet school with only six kids aboard, he said.

"SPPS hasn't just dropped the ball, they continue to drop the ball throughout this mess," Frankland said via e-mail.

Kevin Burns, a district spokesman, said nine routes were canceled due to drivers not showing up, and officials planned to meet Thursday night to find ways to maximize drivers and routes.

"What happened today was entirely out of our control, but we understand this is very stressful and creates a great deal of anxiety," he said. "We sincerely apologize."

Gothard began his day at the district's E-STEM Middle School in Woodbury. There, Principal Jocelyn Sims walked along a line of First Student yellow buses and called into the office to double-check how many buses were expected before the 8:30 a.m. start.

"Eleven?" she said. "We got 'em all. Success story!"

The district was upfront on its website that families should expect delays after a projected shortage of 40 bus drivers grew last week to 76, forcing a reduction in routes.

High schoolers at Central, Como Park, Harding and Washington Technology Magnet School were shifted to Metro Transit buses, and students at seven elementary and middle schools, including Capitol Hill, had new start times that are expected to remain in place until at least winter break.

Online demand

Three weeks ago, the district decided to immediately expand its new SPPS Online School — initially designed for high schoolers — to include K-12 students. A rush of applications left more than 500 students on waiting lists and many parents frustrated about a lack of communication.

Lynda Thurstin, a parent who lives on the city's North End, said she wanted her two daughters to go online and learned her seventh-grader Amore is 40th on that class' waiting list and kindergartner Bonita is 15th on her list. Amore has yet to be vaccinated against COVID-19, her mother said, and the family didn't want her potentially exposed to the delta variant.

"With the uncertainty of what's going on, it's pretty scary nowadays," Lynda Thurstin said.

But she said it wasn't until Tuesday that it became clear there would be no space available for Amore; instead, she started the year at Washington Technology Magnet.

On Wednesday night, families with children on the waiting list finally learned by e-mail that the district planned to look at adding staff and opening more seats during the first weeks of school — and children would be given excused absences through Sept. 17 if parents chose to keep them home. But there would be no guarantees they'd get seats, the district said.

Slightly more than 1,000 students are enrolled in the online school, with waiting lists for most grades, Burns said.

Gothard declined to say how many new spaces could be opened up. The district already is struggling to find candidates in virtually every job category, he said, and he wants "high quality people" at the online school.

"We'll find out where we need staff, and how to move staff," he said.

As for those employees now in place across the district, he said was pleased with their performance on opening day: "They were organized, excited and ready," he said.

Arriving at Central

By 8 a.m., the streets surrounding Central High were filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic and cars stopping to let out students for their first day of school.

A small bus operated by First Student under a contract with the Metropolitan Council dropped off about 20 students a few minutes after the 8:30 bell, but Assistant Principal Mark Krois said the school will be flexible and forgiving when counting students late for class in these first weeks.

"There will be some big growing pains for sure," he said about the transition to using Metro Transit. "We have no idea how many of our kids have ever ridden public transit before."

The morning rush outside the building on Thursday suggested most students opted to hitch a ride with parents or join a carpool.

Krishson Pokwal had his father drive him to school rather than navigate the bus route on his first morning of high school. Taking his son to and from school interrupts Deekay Pokwal's own work schedule, but he said he plans to keep doing so in order to get his son to school on time and help him transition into high school.

"I'd like him to take the bus, but I know he's just not confident in that right now," Deekay Pokwal said.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440