School bus transportation service for secondary students in both Gloversville and Johnstown was abruptly canceled Sunday afternoon, leaving parents reliant on bus pickup stuck with either driving their kids to school or keeping them home for the next eight instructional school days.
“We were hanging by a thread prior to this, and this puts us in a position where [HFM BOCES] is unable to execute all of the runs they typically do,” Gloversville Enlarged School District Superintendent David Halloran said.
Sunday evening phone calls were placed to parents at approximately 5 p.m. in Johnstown and Gloversville warning them of the bus cancellation, and a message was sent from Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent William Crankshaw to parents through the GJSD ParentSquare system.
“Due to a serious shortage of HFM BOCES Transportation Department staff we regret to inform our families that, for the next eight instructional days, beginning on Monday, September 27, 2021, HFM BOCES shared transportation service will be unable to transport JJSHS students in Grades 7-12 to school during that period of time,” reads Crankshaw’s message to parents. “During this unprecedented situation, the District asks that if you are able to transport your student to school, please arrange to do so to the best of your ability. Accordingly, students may arrive late, but our teachers are prepared to accept them into class as soon as they can arrive. Of course, not all families may be able to transport their students, so synchronous learning is available in any case. Please check your teachers’ Google classroom for Zoom links and assignments.”
Bus driver shortages have caused problems for bus service at the Greater Amsterdam School District and the Schenectady City School District since the start of school year, but so far neither has been forced to completely shut down the service for a portion of their school system.
Halloran said he was told on Sunday by HFM BOCES Assistant Superintendent for Operations Aaron Bochniak that COVID-19 testing had revealed a positive case among the BOCES transportation staff, resulting in multiple 10-day quarantines that effectively crippled the service’s ability to provide enough bus drivers and bus aides to handle the bus routes for both the secondary and elementary level for the two school districts.
“They had just gotten the word. This wasn’t something they knew on Friday,” he said. “This has been the experience, not just with transportation, but with COVID since it started. You never know what you’re going to get, regardless of what day of the week it is.”
Crankshaw said the bus cancelation affects approximately 150 students at GJSD. Halloran said for Gloversville it’s more grades, 6-12, affecting both the middle school and the high school, but he wasn’t sure how many students.
GESD School Board President Robert Curtis said he’s not sure when HFM BOCES found out about the quarantines, but the school district attempted to warn parents as soon as it found out.
“No, it’s not the best timing, and it’s not going to be convenient for a lot of people, but I think it’s the reality we’re still living in with COVID cases still occurring,” Curtis said.
Halloran said he and Crankshaw on Sunday were able to decide via text messaging to institute a plan to prioritize the remaining HFM BOCES bus drivers to provide service for the elementary schools and special needs students.
“That’s in the hopes that the students who won’t be able to get to school on the secondary level will be able to more easily connect with their classes through synchronous learning, or they can connect with their classmates and get rides to school,” Halloran said. “We knew this was a possibility, for various reasons, after last year’s experience, so we need to be nimble.”
Crankshaw said HFM BOCES was already dealing with a bus driver shortage prior to this latest COVID-19 outbreak, and the shortage had required the two districts to “double up” on some bus routes.
“We had to come up with a plan that would allow the most kids to get to school,” Crankshaw said. “Our secondary students are more likely to engage better and more productively in synchronous learning, and our high school is trying to set up and do a nice job with that. Elementary is just so hard to reach students virtually. That really was part of the decision.”
Crankshaw said the Johnstown Junior Senior High School starts at 7:30 a.m. and GJSD’s elementary schools start at 9 a.m., which means households with children in both elementary and secondary schools were putting their children on two separate buses. Crankshaw said he’s uncertain what would happen if a parent attempted to place a secondary student on the elementary school bus, but cautioned that many of those buses are already crowded without much room to spare.
“If that happened, I’m not sure what that scenario would look like, right at the house where children are picked up,” Crankshaw said. “I imagine we’d hear about it through a phone call from the parents, and I feel badly for parents who are in an impossible situation. We would ask them to try to work with the school. We feel we have the best plan we can have right now.”
The GJSD has been advertising available bus driver jobs on its website for weeks. Crankshaw said the bus driver population is often older people who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, which has been putting further stress on the number of available drivers. He said he hopes more members of the community will want to take the training to drive buses and help alleviate the shortage.
“We advertise every Monday. We have a six-week [training] program, and we’re hoping some people do take notice, because we need people,” he said.
Halloran said he intends to explore options regarding getting possible “van transportation” available to some students with limited options to get to school besides the bus. He said he has to explore the legality of the school district providing transportation in a form other than a bus and hopes to have some answers early this week.
Crankshaw said he’s also going to look to see if adjustments can be made to extend bus service to some additional students on the secondary level, but he wasn’t certain Sunday whether or not it would be possible.