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Thief River Falls school bus driver shortage is critical, says transportation director

The district has 21 routes and only 11 drivers.

Thief River Falls sign logo tower mural.jpg
A mural in Thief River Falls, Minn. (Grand Forks Herald)

THIEF RIVER FALLS – Thief River Falls is facing a school bus driver shortage that Ronnie Skallet, the school district's transportation director, describes as “critical.”

The northwest Minnesota school district has 21 routes and only 11 drivers. Skallet says the district needs three more drivers to cover the routes, and six to eight more drivers to be in a comfortable position.

The driver shortage is not unique to Thief River Falls. In August, the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the National School Transportation Association released the results of a survey of school districts on the school bus driver shortage. The results showed that 51% of respondents described the driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate.” Skallet says Thief River Falls Public Schools is in the "severe" category.

It's also an ongoing issue in Grand Forks .

The decline in school bus drivers has been happening for years, said Skallet. The district has lost an average of one driver a year for the last decade, but COVID-19 accelerated the trend.

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“We’re at a point now where we’re really starting to feel it,” said Skallet.

In the past, many of the drivers employed by Thief River Falls Public Schools were farmers and retirees. Skallet believes changes in farming and the needs of retirees contribute to the shortage.

“A lot of farmers don’t have the time anymore like they used to. Smaller farmers could help out in between harvest and in planting season,” said Skallet. “A lot of people just don’t need a second income anymore. They have good retirement plans and they don’t want to get up early.”

The district announced on Oct. 19 that Bus #32 would be an hour late each afternoon indefinitely. Bus #32 is one of the in-town routes and it will be late so that the driver can complete a different route before returning to pick up the students who take Bus #32. While they wait for the bus to pick them up, elementary school students play on the playground or in the school common areas, and middle and high school students go to their school’s media center.

When students have to spend extra time at school waiting for a bus, they need supervision. Superintendent Donita Stepan said this responsibility falls on paraprofessionals and administrators.

“Our paraprofessionals are working all day as well, and so what we're asking them to do is to work longer hours,” said Stepan. “They're exhausted by the end of the day.”

The district does not have enough bus drivers to transport students to and from school each day, much less transport them on field trips and to extracurricular activities, like out-of-town sporting events. Skallet says anything that interferes with route time is not handled by school bus drivers – instead, the district relies on parents or charter buses to transport students. Field trips are either cut down in time to allow drivers to make it back for afternoon routes, or they do not happen at all.

“One example of something that’s fresh in our minds is taking students on college trips,” said Stepan. “It’s difficult for us to do that now.”

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Thief River Falls Public Schools has been working to hire more drivers, and Stepan says this effort will continue, but the ongoing driver shortage calls for other strategies to combat the problem.

The district expects to send a letter and survey to parents asking if they can opt out of transportation for their children and transport them to and from school themselves. Based on the results of the survey, buses will be rerouted to accommodate fewer riders and drivers. If rerouting does not solve the problem, the district will increase the walking distance around schools to two miles.

Related Topics: EDUCATIONTRANSPORTATION
Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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