‘Everybody’s Unhappy’: Toledo Schools Go Remote

Temporary: Shift Comes as Several Districts Struggle With Bus Driver Shortage

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Toledo students and their families received a troubling and unexpected message from their school district Monday evening: Toledo schools were all shifting to remote learning for the rest of the week because the district didn’t have enough transportation staff to get students to school.

“Everybody’s unhappy. There isn’t anybody that thinks this is a good thing,” said Superintendent Chris Rust. “We have worked so hard all year long to keep this from happening, and it was a blow when we realized that we were just not going to be able to transport kids.”

That realization came at around 4:45 p.m. on Monday when the district had three of its nine bus drivers test positive for COVID-19. And since the district was short on bus drivers to begin with, the loss of those three drivers for the five days they have to quarantine means the district is unable to maintain its bus routes until the drivers return.

“The school district is responsible to provide a full day of instruction for each student. We aren't allowed to offer instruction only to the kids who can get to school on their own steam or who are fortunate enough to have neighbors to help transport them. Toledo Schools doesn't exclude anyone,” Rust said in a message to parents Monday night. “We were already looking at 10% of our teachers being out tomorrow with only a few of their positions filled with subs. This isn't unusual. We've been dealing with this since returning to school. The driver shortage was just too much to overcome.”

The bus driver shortage, while exacerbated by the pandemic, is an issue that school districts have been dealing with for years, Rust said.

“I've been begging for drivers since I arrived here. So is everybody else in the United States,” said Rust, adding that the district’s bus driver shortage is part of the reason why Toledo Elementary School has a different start time than Toledo Junior/Senior High School.

“It’s because we don’t have enough drivers,” he said.

The Centralia/Chehalis Pupil Transportation Cooperative, which serves 10 school districts in Lewis County including both the Centralia and Chehalis school districts, also struggles with a shortage of bus drivers.

“The bus driver shortage is a national, state and local issue and has been exacerbated by the pandemic,” Centralia Superintendent Lisa Grant said. “When a large number of drivers are ill and/or need to quarantine, it stresses the system.”

The co-op hasn’t had to cancel any routes or change any schedules due to driver absences, said Grant, but there have been cases in the Chehalis School District where dispatchers and mechanics with Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDL’s) have had to step in when a bus driver is absent.

“We’re kind of hanging on by the skin of our teeth,” said Chehalis Superintendent Christine Moloney, adding that the co-op is actively working to recruit and train new drivers.

In Centralia, the cooperative employs 20 drivers and serves 16 elementary routes, 16 secondary routes and five special-ed routes, in addition to operating trips to and from sports games and other school-related activities.

“We had three new drivers start recently and that has helped, but we still check daily to be sure we can cover all needed routes,” she said.

A fourth new driver is currently going through training to receive his CDL, Moloney said, which the co-op pays for.

“It's slow. It's not where we need to be. So we really, really want to push that we want and we need bus drivers,” said Moloney.

Anyone seeking a bus driver position with the Chehalis School District can apply through the district’s website at https://chehalisschools.org/jobs/.

“It’s not only bus drivers,” said Moloney, “we could still use custodian positions and you know,  educational paras, substitute teachers, food service, I mean, we definitely need subs and permanent positions for those areas.”

Toledo School District recently sent out a letter to families notifying them of their own shortage of substitutes for critical positions.

“One of the benefits of being in a small town is that people rally around. And so that was the intent of that letter, was to get our community to rally around us,” said Rust.

And it worked: Rust said he spoke with three people on Tuesday who qualified for emergency certification and said the district had just under 70 phone calls from people who want to be certified substitutes.

“It’s having the desired effect,” he said of the letter.

While the Toledo School District is the only district in Lewis County that has had to shift to remote learning due to staffing shortages exacerbated by the pandemic, it’s not the only Lewis County school district struggling with absences.

Many schools in the county anecdotally reported that 10% to 20% of its students and teachers were out sick on Tuesday, said Lewis County Public Health Director JP Anderson in a presentation to the Lewis County Board of Commissioners.

“Definitely a challenging time around COVID for schools,” Anderson said.

Lewis County schools began implementing the Center for Disease Control’s updated COVID-19 guidelines this week, which cuts the minimum quarantine time for those who test positive for COVID-19 from seven days to five. 

“(We) really appreciate everyone’s patience on that, including parents, some of which I think got called this weekend and were told their child could come back this week,” said Anderson. “That was good, that was the intent of the guidance: to shorten that quarantine time.”

The Toledo School District intends to resume in-person instruction on Monday, Jan. 23, Rust said: “but it's going to depend on cooperation from the virus.”