Bus driver scarcity, delays leaves Woodstock School District 200 rethinking schedules

‘By our acknowledgement, a 7:10 start is incredibly early,’ superintendent says of proposal for Pre-K

Woodstock School District 200 officials are considering changing school start times because of a shortage of bus drivers driven by COVID-19 and other economic factors that has caused some routes to run a half-hour to 45 minutes late.

“Transportation is a struggle for us right now,” Superintendent Michael Moan said. “We’re struggling to get buses to school on time. We’re struggling to get kids home at the end of the day.”

He fears the problem will get worse as the winter approaches. There are about 16 less driver spots in the district than are needed, a Friday letter to parents of District 200 students said.

Other school districts in McHenry County and Illinois are facing the same issue of not having enough bus drivers as far more students are attending in-person classes at the start of this school year than they were last year, when remote learning was the sole option provided by many school systems, including most in McHenry County, because of COVID-19 at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year.

Transportation is a struggle for us right now. We’re struggling to get buses to school on time. We’re struggling to get kids home at the end of the day.”

—  Superintendent Michael Moan

“We’ve looked to other vendors, we’ve examined every potential solution,” Moan said in the letter. “We have reached out to all large transportation companies in an attempt to add drivers, but the national shortage has impacted transportation availability throughout our region.”

District 200′s school board has yet to make a vote on the matter, but Moan wanted to bring the seriousness of the problem to the attention of elected officials and propose some solutions.

“We’re in a bad situation and we’re bringing a conversation to the table,” Moan said.

The district is trying to recruit more drivers, but Moan said the hiring process can take weeks to bring personnel on and certify them as drivers.

Substitute drivers are working as often as regular drivers normally do, and even mechanics are driving routes, Moan said.

School board member John Headley suggested the district reach out to state representatives to see if the Illinois National Guard might be able to help with the bus driver shortage by having guardsmen drive routes, as is being done in Massachusetts.

“They’re there for emergencies. This is an emergency. Let’s see if we can get them out there and help us,” Headley said.

The proposal that officials may put into place if the situation continues to be dire would have Verda Dierzen Early Learning Center pre-kindergarten students start their days at 7:10 a.m. for those who attend morning classes now, with dismissal at 9:40 a.m., and the students who attend in the afternoon now would move up to a 10:55 a.m. start with a 1:25 p.m. dismissal if the new start times take effect.

“By our acknowledgement, a 7:10 start is incredibly early,” Moan said.

Verda Dierzen kindergarten students would start at 7:10 a.m. as well and get dismissed at 1:25 p.m. under Moan’s proposed rescheduling.

“It appears that at this time our best option is to restructure our school days to allow our drivers to complete three routes each day at the kindergarten, elementary and middle and high school levels. Currently our Dierzen drivers are not typically able to drive elementary and high school routes. This would allow us to provide our typical high level of service in transportation,” Moan said in the letter.

Throughout the rest of the district, first through fifth grades would move back from the current 7:30 a.m. start to a 7:55 a.m. first bell with a 2:25 p.m. dismissal; middle schools would push back from 8:30 a.m. starts to 8:55 a.m. with a 3:45 p.m. dismissal; and high schools would push back from 8:20 a.m. starts to 8:45 a.m. with a 3:30 p.m. dismissal.

“I think this is workable if it needs to be, but not ideal obviously,” school board member Michelle Bidwell said.

The discussion of rejigging start times because of the driver shortage will be continued at a Sept. 28 school board meeting.

Sam Lounsberry

Sam Lounsberry

Sam Lounsberry covers local government, business, K-12 education and all other aspects of life in McHenry County, in particular in the communities of Woodstock, McHenry, Richmond, Spring Grove, Wonder Lake and Johnsburg.