Woodstock School District 200 yanks earlier school start times from consideration while bus driver shortage looms

Public opposition drove the decision to stop considering a proposal that would have had elementary classes start at 7:10 a.m.

A Woodstock Community Unit School District 200 bus crosses the intersection of Lamb Road and the Metra railroad tracks northwest of Woodstock on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. The rail yard in Crystal Lake may be relocated to that site as part of a federal infrastructure spending program.

Faced with overwhelming opposition from the families of elementary students, Woodstock School District 200 Superintendent Mike Moan yanked a discussion of moving up school start times from next week’s school board agenda.

His proposal, which would have had some pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students at Verda Dierzen Early Learning Center start class at 7:10 a.m., was intended as a potential solution to alleviate mounting pressure on his short-handed transportation staff.

District 200 is down 16 bus drivers from what it needs, Moan said last week, and some routes have been delayed as substitute drivers have been working far more regularly than usual and even staff like mechanics have filled in to drive.

He fears the problem will get worse during the winter months.

Other school districts in McHenry County and across Illinois are facing the same issue of not having enough bus drivers as far all schools return to fully in-person learning. Many school districts in McHenry County began the last school year with remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While we don’t expect potential solutions to vexing problems to please everyone, I do appreciate and consider parent input in our decision-making process, particularly when making decisions that affect our families,” Moan said in a letter to students’ families. “We continue to face a complicated situation without easy answers. Our transportation issues remain very real and continue to impact our daily operations. However, we will continue to explore other options in the near future that have less impact on our families.”

While the 90-minute change to the Verda Dierzen start times is no longer on the table, it will likely be “impossible” for District 200 to resolve its transportation woes without some schedule changes and “some possible disruptions,” Moan said.

The bus driver shortage is a nationwide issue exacerbated by COVID-19. In Massachusetts, the state’s National Guard has been deployed to help drive students to school, an idea one District 200 school board member suggested pursuing in Illinois when the problem was discussed last week.

“We will attempt to stay in a similar school day timeframe and to provide support for parents so that any schedule changes would allow for student supervision when possible to cover time issues that conflict with our current schedule,” Moan said.

Illinois State Board of Education officials are working to support and guide school districts facing a bus driver shortage, agency spokeswoman Jackie Matthews told the Northwest Herald.

“School districts have received billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funding and can use this funding to address transportation needs, as they relate to the pandemic,” Matthews said.

She said the federal assistance can be spent on bus driver recruitment activities like job fairs and ads, one-time sign-on bonus payments to bus drivers due to pandemic shortages, longevity incentive payments if drivers stay on the job for a certain amount of time, or incentives if they accept certain routes.

School districts can also use funding to offer before-school and after-school programs and use existing drivers and buses to get students to such programs outside the time regular bus routes are running.

“This allows for more students to arrive early, especially in cases where parents can’t transport because they will be late for their own job,” Matthews said.

School districts also can coordinate with local recreation departments, Boys and Girls Clubs, multicultural centers and other community organizations to transport youth after school to their programs since most usually own buses, she said.

Districts also may consider alternative transportation options through using federal funding to contract local mass transit systems for transportation of middle and high school students, or to contract specialized medical transport companies to transport persons with disabilities with medical needs, Matthews said.

“School districts can also provide stipends to parents to transport their children to school and include those payments on their state transportation reimbursement claim, which is reimbursed with state funding,” she said.

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