SEATTLE — Beginning Monday, Seattle Public Schools is suspending 142 school bus routes, a move made necessary because of a national bus driver shortage and because some drivers are declining the state-mandated coronavirus vaccine for public employees, district officials say.
Out of the 18,000 students who are eligible for bus rides, about 6,740 could be affected by the bus route cuts, but the actual number could be lower, district spokesperson Tim Robinson said.
The 142 bus routes that are being cut will not affect students in special education classes, students with Individualized Education Programs, students whose disabilities make them eligible for public transportation services, students experiencing homelessness or foster students. Schools at interim sites or those that serve “high proportions of historically underserved students” won’t be affected either, according to an email to parents sent Friday afternoon.
Seattle Schools does not know how many students will be affected by route shortages because the number of students who ride the bus fluctuates every day, Robinson said. Of the 18,000 students in the district who are eligible for transportation services, it’s estimated about half ride the bus.
“If I were to guess, between 3,000 to 4,000 (students) would be affected,” said Fred Podesta, assistant superintendent of operations. Seattle contracts with a company, First Student, to provide bus service.
Not all school districts have been affected by the vaccine mandate. Bellevue School District officials said “mostly” all of its drivers are vaccinated and bus routes are not being cut.
Lake Washington School District does not anticipate losing drivers because of the mandate, officials said. All of Issaquah School District bus drivers are vaccinated, officials said, and to their knowledge none of them resigned because of the mandate.
Seattle warned parents a week ago that cuts were coming, with an email that said “it is possible that the remaining drivers may only be able to cover one-third of the general education routes we currently run.”
As soon as next week, a “handful” of bus routes could return, Podesta said. The district is working with families and school officials to put students on other bus routes if needed.
At capacity, the district has a total of 600 routes, district officials said. Seattle Schools is expecting to lose 20 drivers on Monday because of the vaccine mandate. With those drivers off the roster, it needs 70 additional drivers.
Suspending some bus routes will help with late bus times, Podesta said, because bus drivers have had to pick up extra routes, which causes delays. Fewer routes will also help because bus driver trainers have been driving some of the routes, he said.
“This change in strategy helps us dig out (of transportation issues) faster and provide better service for those taking the bus,” Podesta said.
Seattle Schools will give middle school students a one-week Metro bus pass next week and is working on getting some permanent passes for students, Podesta said.
The district is also looking for drivers who can transport students in passenger vans, which don’t require the same type of driver licensing.
To help with transportation issues, Seattle Schools officials reached out to the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction “to see if there is anything the state had to offer but I don’t think those conversations have progressed,” Podesta said.