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School District opens up about challenges with bus routes

Published: Oct. 15, 2021 at 9:24 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - From long pick up lines to carpooling, parents in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District (FNSBSD) have been adjusting to new bus rotations since the start of the school year.

Due to bus driver and school district staff shortages, FNSBSD has been facing challenging obstacles to accommodate families who utilize the bus service. On October 7th the FNSBSD revised a new route suspension rotation for students to transition from a three week rotation to a two week rotation.

Karen Melin is the acting Interim Superintendent for the School District. She said when there were two weeks of route schedules, then transitioning to a week with a different route schedule, this formula was confusing and created its own set of issues for the schools, students, and drivers.

“What we were finding was that we were having last minute cancelations and we weren’t really able to deliver that level of service consistently,” Melin said.

Melin said the feedback received from parents was they would rather have reliable and consistent service and have it be limited, as opposed to route cancellations.

“So that’s the big picture for this shift,” she added.

Melin said moving forward, the quickest way to get away from this “every other week schedule” is to get a dependable staffing pool that can deliver reliable services. She expressed that before the school district can switch from the schedule they have implemented, they want to be certain the changes made are dependable, adding they want to avoid combining routes.

Melin says this is not a “do one thing and fix the big problem,” type of solution, adding there are many layers to these issues that need to be addressed.

One of those core issues is the lack of bus drivers to accommodate the routes.

Andreau DeGraw, the Chief Operations Officer for the school district says the lack of bus drivers is not an isolated problem within the FNSBSD. In fact, it is a nationwide problem affecting numerous districts.

DeGraw said the school district has been challenged with a lack of drivers for the last five to ten years, and in his opinion the problem is not going to be solved right away.

Degraw explained there are bus drivers that were recently hired and are going through training, but they are faced with a lack of trainers to get those trainees through the system, the “pipe-line,” as he calls it, and starting this process can take several weeks.

Degraw says the school district is looking at the issues, long term, and wants to make the outcome a positive, permanent solution.

“If all of a sudden 50 drivers show up on our doorstep tomorrow and the problem gets fixed... how do we fundamentally change what we are doing in figuring out what solutions, what new things, we can implement in order to be more successful in the future?” DeGraw said.

A short term solution the school district has added is a before and after-school program on a school-by-school basis, as staffing allows. Melin said, “Each individual school is looking at what kind of staffing they have available and how they can get more staffing.” She noted that services would be dependent on the need for the program, and could only be a reasonable solution if there was staff to fill that void.

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