Anchorage School District suspends multiple bus routes due to COVID-related driver shortage

Larry Carter, a bus driver with Reliant Transportation and contractor for the Anchorage School District, delivers free breakfasts and lunches to students in Glencaren Court in East Anchorage on Friday, March, 20, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage students have been going to class in-person for nearly two weeks, there haven’t been any major disruptions. But now, rising COVID case counts in the community are impacting school operations. 

Six bus routes across the Anchorage School District will be temporarily suspended starting Monday because several bus drivers have tested positive for the coronavirus, the Anchorage School District said Friday. 

The district was already suffering from a driver shortage as the school year started, unable to hire enough qualified drivers. It consolidated routes as much as possible, which led to longer routes and kids getting picked up later, said Tom Roth, the district’s chief operating officer.

“There was no slack in the staffing situation,” he said. “So at this point, we’re really out of options to consolidate routes or run double routes and we are having to suspend routes for bus drivers that are not available due to COVID-19.” 

Related: Bus driver shortage caused by COVID-19 disrupts service at several Mat-Su schools

It’s unclear how long the service will be suspended. But between the time it takes to quarantine and for drivers to recover, the district is planning for transportation to be impacted for weeks at a time.

The suspended service will not impact special education students, and the district said it’s prioritizing maintaining service to Title I schools. The district will rotate the suspension across all routes until normal services can resume, so that no one group of students will be without bus service for an extended period. An email to families Friday displayed a matrix showing which routes will be suspended and when. 

Meanwhile, there are other shortages in the district impacting operations, too.

The district is trying to avoid any classroom or school closures, but staffing is a concern, said the district’s Health Services Director Jennifer Patronas. 

“We’re trying not to close and if we do have to move to online learning, there’s a lot of different variables that we take into consideration,” Patronas said. “Number one is: Do we have staffing to keep that particular class open in person?”

“If we’re having to quarantine or isolate all the staff members that work in that classroom,” she said, “we do our best to try to find substitutes, but we are very short on substitutes.”

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So far two Anchorage classrooms have moved to online learning this school year.  

The district is also seeing a rising number of COVID-19 cases, with at least 280 active infections as of Friday afternoon. There have been at least 400 confirmed cases since Aug. 12th. 

“That is a lot of cases, more than we saw last school year for sure,” Patronas said. “But we do realize that this delta variant is more contagious,” she said. “My perspective is that it seems like people are moving around the community a lot more freely than they were last school year, which contributes to it.”

There aren’t any noticeable trends in confirmed cases among students right now, according to Ashley Lally, the district’s director of security and emergency preparedness

“COVID is so widespread in the community, and we are a part of that community,” Lally said. “So we’re seeing, essentially, what the city itself is seeing and what the state is seeing.”

RELATED: Alaska reports highest daily COVID-19 count since December as Dunleavy warns about hospital capacity

Lally said this year there’s more of a focus on the district’s protocols than managing people’s behaviors like advising against sleepovers or encouraging people not to carpool with those who aren’t in your bubble.

“We’re not really having those same conversations anymore,” she said.

Patronas said communicating the district’s health guidelines is key in keeping schools open, and reminding families to keep sick children at home. 

“The biggest question that we get is: Can I send my child to school if they have symptoms? And the answer is, ‘No’,” she said. 

District officials said they’re prioritizing health and safety while also trying to provide some predictability in a rapidly-changing situation. 

And, despite significant pushback from some families on the universal face mask policy, Patronas said, there haven’t been any major issues with compliance.

“Every time I go to a school, I’m just amazed at how well they’re wearing a mask with adults and students,” she said. “And people don’t seem to be bothered.”

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