EUCLID, Ohio — Some students in Euclid City Schools are back to remote learning, not because of illness in their classrooms, however, but because there aren’t enough bus drivers to get them there. This week, 25 percent of its drivers, contracted through First Student, were placed in COVID protocols.
The district's four elementary schools and one middle school have been moved back to remote learning until a new plan can come together to get all of them to school fairly. The district hopes that’s this coming Monday. Superintendent Chris Papouras called on the Governor to deploy the National Guard to help.
Governor DeWine addressed the challenge today during his coronavirus news conference. “Whenever you pull someone in from the National Guard, they are leaving a job. These are not people who are just sitting around waiting for us to call them,” said DeWine. “So if we were to pull in people who are legally qualified to drive a bus, they might be leaving another position that was very significant.”
DeWine said he's been hearing a lot about it and trying to institute both short-term and long-term solutions.
One the state will do immediately is prioritize background ground checks for drivers waiting to be hired, putting them in the front of the line. DeWine said he’d been working with Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to collapse any backlog, even offering the AG more funding to move all essential workers through that process faster.
The shortage of bus drivers highlights two looming issues: the coronavirus and related quarantines, and the hiring crisis that's hitting all sorts of industries.
School bus drivers need training, commercial driver’s licenses, and thorough background checks before working with children. They aren't easy to replace.
“I think speeding up background checks would probably be helpful. I think there's probably a multitude of things that could be helpful,” said State Rep. Kent Smith, a Democrat who represents Euclid at the statehouse. “I think the reality we're all trying to avoid is a return to virtual learning because we can't get kids back into the buildings built for them.”
Rep. Smith is also a former Euclid School board member and has been working with the district to find solutions. He says the National Guard has been used for a variety of other purposes during the pandemic - and this one could be just as heroic, and a fast fix.
His office Thursday reached out to his 98 statehouse colleagues to understand the scope of the problem, hearing larger districts like Toledo and Cincinnati are considering the same move. Other schools have already changed start times and bus routes to use fewer drivers to transport the same number of kids.
Painesville Schools Superintendent Josh Englehart told 3News Sara Shookman that the shortage of drivers is across other sectors, so districts are competing with each other for drivers, and also private businesses.
“The candidate pool is not deep enough to find replacements,” he said in an email. “There is not a quick turnaround between identifying interested candidates and getting them behind the wheel.”
Meanwhile, the disruption to the school year is affecting Euclid families.
"It's like they're abandoning the kids," said Susanne Knauer, mother of two, whose 11-year-old daughter is attending classes online for the rest of the week, until the district can come up with alternate plans. She and other parents are once again, having to juggle work and virtual learning, like they did during most of the 2020-2021 school year.
"I didn't ever want to put them through virtual school ever again," said Knauer. "And not necessarily just her education [that I worry about], but just her mental and emotional health. It's this up and down -- is it going to be this kind of rollercoaster for the remainder of the school year?" she wondered.