HELENA — Since the start of the school year, Helena Public Schools has had to adjust its bus routes and schedules to account for a shortage of drivers. That’s required parents to make adjustments as well.
District leaders initially dealt with the shortage by doubling up some routes, but that changed the schedule significantly – requiring some students to spend much longer on the bus.
Wendy Magera’s daughter Pyper is in sixth grade at C.R. Anderson Middle School. This was her first year riding the bus, and Magera says the changes were disruptive for her.
“It’s a lot of anxiety for my daughter, because she doesn’t know when she needs to ride the bus, what bus number she has to be on, it changes all the time,” she said.
Magera, who works as a high school guest teacher, says they’ve generally tried to have someone available to pick Pyper up – if not herself, then her other daughter in high school or Pyper’s grandparents.
“It’s just easier for us to just avoid all the confusion and all the craziness at the time and just make sure she gets picked up from school every day, one way or the other,” she said.
As of Nov. 15, the district changed its strategy. Instead of combining and redirecting routes, they implemented rolling week-long suspensions. During those weeks, families are asked to transport their kids themselves. Leaders say this will make sure the burden of the driver shortage doesn’t fall on any one group of families, and that they won’t have to permanently cancel any routes.
Monica Glueckert has a daughter in third grade at Rossiter Elementary and a son in sixth grade at C.R. Anderson. Over the last few weeks, each of them has gone through a route suspension.
“We have just had to problem-solve and plan a little more,” said Glueckert.
When her daughter’s bus was suspended, Glueckert’s partner was off from work, making it easier to schedule a pickup. However, when her son needed transportation, Glueckert had to do it herself, working around her schedule as a counselor at Helena Middle School.
“I’m thankful that I have an employer that is flexible for me to be late on some days or leave early, and I’m thankful that I have a support system,” she said.
Glueckert says she has talked to some parents whose kids still went to the bus stop when their bus wasn’t running.
Despite the challenges of planning for route changes, Glueckert says her kids haven’t been too affected by the suspensions.
“I think it’s been nice for them,” she said. “They get some more time with me in the car, and it’s kind of like a special week for them where we have to accommodate everything around them.”
A spokesperson for Helena Public Schools says the district is still short about 15 to 17 drivers, out of 68 positions available.
“Parents have been extremely cooperative and we’re grateful for their flexibility,” she said. “Our families have really been our partners in responding to this shortage of school bus drivers.”
The school district is offering some financial reimbursement for families that transport their own students while routes are suspended – up to $50 if their kids ride the bus seven times or fewer in four weeks, and up to $100 if they ride the bus more often. So far, they’ve received 104 applications for reimbursement. About 1,300 students could be eligible, though families would only be compensated once for multiple students riding the same route.
You can find out more information about how to apply for reimbursement on the Helena Public Schools Transportation website.
The district plans to restart three bus routes for students with special needs next month. Leaders thanked parents for being patient and adjusting to the changes.
“The shortage is challenging districts across Montana and the nation, and there’s an appreciation that we haven’t canceled any routes,” a spokesperson said. “Our community really rallies around our schools, and this busing challenge is no exception. Families have been willing to pitch in to make sure everyone has access to bus service the majority of the time.”