Lindsay Taylor lives in Chugiak and works in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Her daughter is about to start her junior year at Chugiak High School. She won’t have bus service for the first six weeks of the school year, so Taylor will have to drive her.
“I’m going to be two hours late to work and have to leave two hours early, so I get to work four out of my eight hours,” Taylor said. “I’ll probably get fired.”
Taylor has considered all of her options. She could get her daughter an e-bike, but she’s worried about her safety, especially in the snow. She could move her to a high school in the Mat-Su Borough and drop her off on her way to work, but then her daughter wouldn’t be able to attend her culinary class at King Tech in Anchorage.
Thursday is the first day of school. Taylor said it’s hard to plan beyond this week.
“Thursday and Friday, I think I’m just going to tell my work that I’m going to have no choice to be late and to leave early,” she said. “But that can’t go on for six weeks.”
Taylor isn’t alone. Parents throughout the district are scrambling to find transportation for their kids after the district announced a severe bus driver shortage. The district divided bus routes into three cohorts. Each cohort will have three weeks with bus service and six without.
In a letter to families on Monday, Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt wrote that more than 50 people had applied to bus driver positions. On Tuesday, he wrote that 20 additional drivers could return to the district after the tourism season ends next month. He also wrote that the district has started “a review process of how we got into this situation.”
In the meantime, many parents are taking to social media to try to arrange carpools with nearby families.
Emily Wettin helps run a new Facebook group for Anchorage parents seeking carpools. Since it started on Friday night, it’s grown to more than 850 members.
Most are parents requesting or offering rides to and from school. Others are trying to arrange groups of students to walk or ride bikes together to school. Teachers and school staff are also in the group, posting about after school programs and even offering to drive kids themselves.
Wettin’s sons are entering first and third grade at Kincaid Elementary School. They’ll be without bus service for the first six weeks of the year.
Wettin said arranging carpools is especially challenging for parents of young children, who’ve spent their first two years of school in a pandemic.
“These strong communities that used to exist prior to COVID, there’s cracks in them,” she said. “We’re not having sports and we’re doing virtual school. All that compounds to, all of a sudden, you don’t know your neighbors.”
The Anchorage School District isn’t the only one in the state dealing with a driver shortage. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is bringing out-of-area drivers in to cover several routes. On Friday, the Matanuska Susitna Borough School District also announced rolling bus cancellations.
Wettin said many Anchorage parents have suggested that full-time bus service should go to schools with the highest need, such as Title I schools.
“Within the Facebook group, there’s been a lot of discussion about funneling resources where it’s at its highest need, specifically the schools that have the highest rates in our Title I schools of free and reduced lunches,” she said.
Katelynn Petersen worries about those schools, too. She’s a private tutor in Anchorage, and she set up the Facebook group after parents asked her for help finding carpools.
“As a private tutor, I see parents that are on the upper end of the income scale. If my parents are worrying about this, this is a crisis for parents in the lower income group,” Petersen said.
Petersen said Title I students also stand to lose much more than in-person instruction time. School is also the place where they get their meals, Internet access and time with other trusted adults.
District leaders say the rotating schedule is the most equitable option, because it provides some transportation to all students rather than no transportation for 12,000 of them. Bryantt, the superintendent, also said at a school board meeting Tuesday night that as more bus drivers start work, the district will prioritize serving low-income students and students who live furthest away from their schools.
Petersen said she’s worried about increased absences among all students, regardless of income, and what that could mean for enrollment in Anchorage’s public schools.
“The poorer educational outcomes that we have, the more that the ones who want to privatize schools are going to look at it and say, ‘Look at these public schools, they’re failing.’ Well, yeah, they’re failing because we haven’t properly funded them,” Petersen said.
Philip Walters agreed. He’s a parent in the district and he teaches band at Gruening Middle School. He said he hopes this demonstrates the importance of school funding at the state level.
“When people think about funding schools, they think about paying teachers and they think about buying books and materials and stuff like that for students, but they don’t necessarily always think about bus drivers,” he said.
The amount of state money the district gets per student hasn’t increased since 2017. Walters said it was only a matter of time before that started impacting basic school services like busing.
“If I could have a slightly smaller PFD and guarantee that I’d have a bus for my child to go to and from school every day, then I’d take that in a heartbeat,” he said.
For now, Walters said, his in-laws will drive his kids to school for the next few weeks. But he knows not many parents have that option.