After several days of confusion, Grand Forks families were notified on Wednesday, Aug. 25, of their new school bus route for the beginning of the year, which will be provided by the city of Grand Forks during a severe shortage of school bus drivers.

The school district announced on Tuesday evening, Aug. 24, that City Area Transit, the city's regular bus service, will provide free transportation to students in the district while school bus services are suspended. Dietrich Bus Service, the service through which the district usually buses students to and from school, will continue to provide limited transportation to special education students, English Language Learning students and students on the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Families who had already purchased school bus tickets for their children will be reimbursed, according to a statement from Grand Forks Public Schools Superintendent Terry Brenner.

Dietrich informed families earlier this week that due to a severe bus driver shortage, they would indefinitely suspend school bus services in Grand Forks. In the 24 hours following the announcement, five people approached Dietrich to inquire about the process to become a bus driver, Dietrich general manager Brian Yanish said.

Initially he said he had been hopeful the shortage would resolve itself within days, but speaking with the Herald Wednesday afternoon, he said he no longer believes that will be possible. He tentatively said he expects the shortage will last roughly a month or two.

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"The shortage is not specific to one community," he said. "To be able to say, 'we’re going to be able to fill that in a month,' I can’t positively say that, but I am confident we’ll have people step up."

Dale Bergman, City Area Transit director, said he expects the city will be able to continue providing an interim service for however long Dietrich is unable to.

"At this time, it is not going to be a problem," Bergman told the Herald. "We will do what we've got to do on our side to keep the wheels in motion."

Yanish said Dietrich continues to work to hire drivers, and has increased an employee referral bonus from $250 to $500 to try to encourage recruitment. All new employees also receive either a $150 sign-on bonus if they have all their necessary credentials, or a $150 reimbursement for licensing fees.

Dietrich drivers are guaranteed to be paid $30 an hour for the first hour, and $16 an hour for each subsequent hour. That rate was negotiated and approved before the severity of the driver shortage was clear, Yanish said.

He added that he doesn't believe the shortage of drivers in Grand Forks is due to any failure specific to Dietrich -- rather, he said, it's an issue plaguing districts across the country. The East Grand Forks School district has also faced concerns of bus driver shortages. East Grand Forks Superintendent Mike Kolness said that bus drivers, who are employed by the district, are still in contract negotiations, but last school year were paid $23.15 per hour while running regular routes.

Dietrich is not technically in any breach of contract with the school district, because they technically do not currently have a contract in place. Every seven years, North Dakota state law requires school districts to put out a request for bids for transportation services, said Scott Berge, the district's business manager. That year happened to fall on 2021 for GFPS, which aligned with the expiration of Dietrich's existing contract.

The request for bid period will expire in a few days, Berge said, but as of Wednesday afternoon, Dietrich is the only company that has submitted a proposal to the district.

Take a look at the new routes here.

First day of school

The city of Grand Forks will begin offering transportation to students on Thursday, Aug. 26, but for students starting school Wednesday morning, parents were still asked to find alternate means of transportation.

The result was children saying goodbye to their parents in cars and in front of school buildings across town.

Excited kids, accompanied by their parents, lingered outside for pictures, words of encouragement, and last minute hugs and kisses at Century Elementary School on Wednesday, Aug. 25, the first day of school for students in K-9 at public schools here. Students in grades 10-12 begin school Thursday, Aug. 26.

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Despite some recent turmoil over the School Board’s decision to require everyone to wear masks in school buildings -- at least until public health data on COVID cases and transmission rates improve -- several parents expressed their support for the policy.

Tricia and Tim Young brought their 10-year old daughter, Tia, who is starting fifth grade at Century Elementary, on the city's south side, where about 400 students in grades K-5 are enrolled.

The Youngs support the mandate, they said. “Whatever it takes for her to be in school,” said Tricia Young, a teacher at Northland Community and Technical College. “Face-to-face learning with teachers is important.”

“(Tia) has really missed her friends,” Tricia said, and she benefits greatly from the social interaction she gets in school.

Tim Young, a UND faculty member, said, “If she was eligible for the vaccine, she would be vaccinated.”

Delta Saunders, whose daughter, Tory, is a fourth-grader this year, said she has “no problem” with the mask mandate.

Her daughter wore a mask in school last year, she said. “There’s no selfishness here -- and we never got sick either.”

The mask mandate “is a good idea, because kids sneeze all over the place,” Saunders said. “If (her kids) could get vaccinated, I would vaccinate them. I think anything that helps people stay safe is good.”

Chilly Goodman, who brought her two youngest daughters to school -- they are starting third and fourth grades; her oldest attends South Middle School -- said she has “no concerns” about requiring students to wear masks. “They were used to it.”

“Anything to keep them safe, let’s do it,” Goodman said. “They’re just excited to be back in school with their teachers and peers.”

About the mask mandate, she added, “Unfortunately, it’s our new normal.”

David Saxberg, principal of Century Elementary, said he has not had any issues with parents objecting to the mask mandate and the policy “didn’t distract from the first day.”

As for the lack of bus drivers, which has put pressure on families that rely on busses to get kids to school, he said, “I have concerns about getting kids to school every day (and) busing is key” to that process.

“We have one regular bus route and special services busing” for English language and special education students, he said. But “I understand there’s a plan in place and we’ll figure it out.”

“Most of our students are driven here by parents,” he said.

Although there were no protests or signs denouncing masks -- as had apparently been alluded to on social media -- on the first day of school, there were signs of welcome lining the walkways to entrances. Some of them read: “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come,” “Today is a Good Day for a Good Day,” “Dare to be Remarkable” and “Be Amazing.”

Similar chalk affirmations met students at Valley Middle School, where principal Todd Selk and other staff members waited outside to greet students and parents, and direct new sixth graders to class on their first day of middle school.

In the minutes leading up to the first bell of the school year, the Valley lawn was a tapestry of pandemic-era strangeness alongside first-day-of-school normalcy. One masked student walked up to the school building toting a new tube of disinfecting wipes along with his new backpack. Nearby, a dad walked up to the door carrying his child's forgotten lunch. Another mom asked her son to remove his mask so she could snap a last photo in front of the school.

"You think you're too big for photos with me," she commented to him before pulling him into a hug.

Parent Heidi Lamb-Castle said her children were nervous and excited to start the new school year, especially her daughter, who started sixth grade on Wednesday.

Her daughter was disappointed to learn there would be masks again this year, she said, but understood the importance of doing her part to keep her classmates healthy.

"I think we all want to support the health of the community," Lamb-Castle said. "We wear masks, and we want to support that of course, and from an 11-year-old's perspective that's all a bummer, but she's supportive of that and is wearing her mask to try to keep the community healthy."

Music teacher Danielle Larson said that everyone seemed to be excited to be back at school, including herself.

"I'm excited to get back with students," she said. "Just seeing the kids -- that's why I'm here."

Selk said that the busing issue was unfortunate, and he did expect there would be some absences in class on Wednesday because of it, but by and large, he said the first morning back at school went as well as anyone could have hoped.

"We think it's going to be much of a return to normal, even though we are still face masking," he said. "So that has been similar to what we did last year, but so far that has not been an obstacle for anyone, and so that's encouraging. Otherwise, once we get inside the building, things are going to be as close to normal, or as close to previous years, as possible."