CORONAVIRUS

Cedar Rapids loses 20% of school bus drivers to coronavirus fears

Uncertainty remains about start dates and number of riders

Kasey Jurgensen, a school bus driver for 15 years, makes notes Aug. 14 as she goes through the daily vehicle inspection
Kasey Jurgensen, a school bus driver for 15 years, makes notes Aug. 14 as she goes through the daily vehicle inspection record before driving the bus off the parking lot for a driver evaluation session at Iowa Central School Bus in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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The Cedar Rapids Community School District, which lost a fifth of its school bus drivers because of COVID-19, has warned Catholic school families the district likely won’t be able to provide transportation for them this fall as before.

And the Aug. 10 derecho that damaged nearly every Cedar Rapids-area school building has complicated matters further by pushing back in-person start dates and damaging 66 school buses, officials said.

“Transportation will adapt to the needs of the schools and students, and we will adjust our plans as we determine the scope of building damage and decide on a return to school start date,” said district spokeswoman Colleen Scholer.

Cedar Rapids Superintendent Noreen Bush sent an email July 30 to parents of children at Xavier, Regis, St. Joseph, St. Matthew, All Saints, St. Pius X, Holy Family and Holy Family/St. Jude telling them the district would not be able to provide free busing to more than 500 students as it has in the past for the private schools.

“Almost 20 percent of the employee group resigned in recent weeks concerned about their health,” Bush said in the email. “Although CRCSD has spent the summer recruiting drivers, the gap has not been filled.”

Older drivers, greater risk

The AARP reports 73 percent of school bus drivers across the country are 55 or older, with many in the 60-plus group more at risk of needing hospitalization if they get the virus that causes COVID-19.

Corridor school districts are taking safety precautions such as requiring drivers and students to wear masks and having students sit with their siblings and farther apart from other students. The Cedar Rapids district plans to have an attendant ride on each bus to enforce the rules and require hand sanitizing before and after riding.

But the risks to drivers have prompted some to retire or just sit out the 2020-2021 academic year. The Clear Creek Amana district lost seven drivers and the Linn-Mar district is down three drivers and three attendants due to COVID-19 concerns, officials said.

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Iowa Central School Bus, a company that provides busing to the Iowa City Community School District, surveyed drivers and found about 20 percent have concerns about taking the wheel during COVID-19, but only one has taken a leave of absence.

Among those sticking it out is Kasey Jurgensen, 64, who has been driving a school bus in Iowa City for 15 years. She’s the type of bus driver who, in the past, has posed a question of the day, led birthday singalongs and let students announce around Christmas where they’ve found their Elf on the Shelf.

“I am friends with the parents because of the children,” she said. “Their children love me.”

And for that reason, Jurgensen isn’t sure going back to school in person is the right step. Union employees have participated in Zoom meetings with the district to learn what precautions will be taken to keep students and bus drivers safe.

“I’m going through the motions to see if we can do this without hurting anyone,” she said.

Districts make plans

Not having busing is a major challenge for some Cedar Rapids Catholic school families, said Chris McCarville, Xavier president.

“Last year, we had approximately 25 students use busing to Xavier High School,” McCarville said in an email. “We are currently working with those impacted families to help organize potential carpools for those who may need transportation.”

School transportation officials across the Corridor are struggling to make plans with so much still in flux — including just when school will start and how many students if any will initially be going in person.

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Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she will let Cedar Rapids and 13 other school districts struck by the Aug. 10 derecho start the school year online instead of in damaged schools. A previous proclamation said all schools must provide at least half-time in-person learning unless COVID-19 cases spike.

Bush said last week Cedar Rapids district officials are waiting to set a start date until officials can do a building assessment of 30 properties and until utility companies can completely restore power and Wi-Fi.

Xavier delayed its start date by a week to address storm damage.

Families across the Corridor have been given the choice of a hybrid of in-person and online schooling or virtual instruction only. Most districts set signup deadlines of mid-August, but then the derecho knocked out power and internet for many families, so counts may be incomplete.

And there’s also the possibility schools could close temporarily if counties have a coronavirus positivity rate of more than 15 percent over a two-week period and if at least 10 percent of students are absent.

Bus driver criteria

The Iowa Department of Education has not relaxed criteria for school bus drivers, despite the shortage. Drivers must be at least 18, physically and mentally competent and pass checks including criminal background, driving record and drug and alcohol screenings, according to the state’s School Bus Driver’s Handbook.

“We have been working with the (Iowa Department of Transportation) to adjust processes for licensing new school bus drivers for this school year,” Education Department spokeswoman Heather Doe said.

The state extended deadlines for training by one month and provided extensions for drivers to renew their commercial driver’s license, she said. A 14-day waiting period between taking the knowledge test and driving test was waived by Iowa DOT so school bus drivers can take both tests the same day.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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