School district forced to cut routes, change start times due to shortage of bus drivers

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- A national school bus driver shortage is affecting local districts in Western Washington.

The Lake Washington School District says they’ve had last-minute bus driver resignations just before school started and they’ve had to cut routes and change start times to preschools.

Parents who have children in preschool say they’ve been left scrambling to make changes to routines that were planned out months in advance.

Jumping on the trampoline with her family, stay at home mom Carissa Robinson says it’s moments like this that are a break from her days.

“We do about 60 miles a day to get him where he needs to be,” Robinson says of her 4-year-old son, Caleb, who has a rare genetic disorder and autism requiring hours of daily therapy.

“He’s non-verbal, he’s tube-fed, he’s so, so fun to be around but he requires a lot of help and assistance,” said Robinson.

She says on August 23, just three weeks before the September 14 start to preschool in the Lake Washington School District, she received an email stating preschool times have been pushed back by 90 minutes because of a school bus driver shortage.

“It went from starting at 8:30 a.m. to starting at 10 a.m. and not getting out until 12:30 p.m.,” said Robinson.

She says the 90-minute shift for her son’s therapy schedule "rocks our whole reality.”

Robinson says the change has impacted her fall schedule that has been filled with critical appointments for Caleb.

“We have the big bones of it worked out but we had to drop three therapists that we’ve seen for years,” says Robinson.

Robinson says she understands the district’s problem but feels frustrated with such late communication about preschool that is critical for her child.

“He loves school and we have the most phenomenal teachers, and it’s what’s heartbreaking about this, he’s grown tremendously in the last year he’s been in this program, but this left us making a choice of private therapy or sending him to school,” said Robinson. “We’re having to fight for something that I think in their eyes was the lesser of evils to impact,” said Robinson.

Beth Pendergrass with the Lake Washington School District says it was not an easy decision.

“It wasn’t something anyone took lightly, or anyone wanted to do, it had to be done,” said Pendergrass.

She says this year’s bus driver shortage is the worst they’ve seen, and that not only did it affect start times but the ripple effect meant the district had to cut bus routes from 101 to 87.

Pendergrass says a better economy makes recruiting drivers tougher and last-minute resignations created a dire situation.

“Those last-minute resignations, you get to that point that there are no other options. It wasn’t about waiting for the end of the summer, it was literally about that emergency situation that people are resigning at that last minute and you can’t fill those positions, we need to transport students that qualify for bus transportation,” said Pendergrass.

Robinson says she doesn’t know what the solution is, but better communication is a good place to start.

“It just would’ve given us some heads-up to retain therapist that built up years of rapport with our kids,” said Robinson.

The Lake Washington School District says they’ve heard from frustrated parents and advise that parents should contact the special services department to work with the district on each family’s needs to accommodate changes in start times.

The district is also still hiring for those open bus driver positions.