Damakant Jayshi

Officials say a bus staffing shortage impacting the Wausau School District that left many parents frustrated and some students standing out in the cold will be mitigated soon, with relief drivers on the way.

On Monday, the Wausau School District opted for a virtual learning day, citing dangerously low wind chills overnight along with bus driver shortages. That decision, announced Sunday, came two hours after parents of Horace Mann Middle School students were informed that two bus routes lacked enough bus drivers and would not run on Monday.

Then on Tuesday, Stettin Elementary School administrators sent a note to parents and guardians at 8.39 a.m., nine minutes after the scheduled opening of classes, notifying them that one bus shuttling students to school was “not running this morning.” The message added that the school was “just learning this now” from First Student, the bus service company contracted by the district.

Also on Tuesday, staff from John Muir Middle School sent a note to parents and guardians at 1 p.m., saying First Student told them buses on two routes serving the school would not run and to make other arrangements to pick up their children.

Some parents have spoken out on social media and in emails to Wausau Pilot & Review expressing their exasperation over such last-minute information coming from the district.

“We certainly understand the frustration these cancellations have caused our families whose students rely on buses to get to and from school,” said a WSD statement shared by Diana White, Coordinator of Communications & Marketing. “That said, we want them to know that First Student has now received relief drivers from another First Student location to help run bus routes within our (d)istrict.”  

According to the WSD, five routes out of 65 have been canceled since Tuesday. For Wednesday afternoon, there is only one route cancellation, White said in an email.

As for informing the families about any disruption, the WSD added that in addition to what First Student was doing to notify affected families, the district will continue to communicate if there are any more route cancellations, “giving them as much of a heads up as possible so they can arrange for other transportation for their student(s).”

First Student acknowledged the challenges the disruptions have caused the families that use the bus service.

“We understand the frustration families feel when there is a service issue,” Jen Biddinger, First Student spokeswoman told Wausau Pilot & Review by email. “Our goal is to always transport students in a safe and timely manner.”

Biddinger blamed the disruptions on a staffing shortage.

“In Wausau, we are having to adjust some bus routes right now to accommodate for staffing shortages,” she said. “We are working in partnership with the district to try to minimize the impact to students. The core of the issue remains the ongoing nationwide need for school bus drivers. Our industry is no different than so many other job sectors that are struggling to fill openings.”

Biddinger acknowledged that those route adjustments do include some cancellations.

“A few routes have been canceled. Depending on staffing levels, some routes also may need to be combined or doubled,” she said. “While this can cause delays, it enables us to provide transportation service to as many students as possible.”

She declined to name the routes that will be impacted.

First Student, she added, was continuing to actively recruit new drivers to serve the Wausau School District with paid training, a $1,500 sign-on bonus and starting wages of $18 per hour.

A surge of COVID-19 infections is impacting bus service at school districts around the country, forcing route cancellations in many areas, according to media reports from throughout the nation.

But bus drivers also cite another cause, a “leading” one, for the ongoing driver shortage: low pay, followed by lack of hours, benefits, and split shifts.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Transportation, announced relaxed rules for bus drivers to address the driver shortage.

“The…Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is giving states the option of waiving the portion of the commercial driver’s license (CDL) skills test that requires applicants to identify the “under the hood” engine components,” the joint statement issued on Jan. 4 said.  “All other components of the written and road test will remain.”

The FMCSA waiver, which went into effect on Jan. 3, will expire on Mar. 31 this year.