By John Rolfe / Red Hook, NY
Tired of Covid, prevention mandates and “expert” recommendations of how to navigate the pandemic?
Most of us want to return to normal life, even if it means taking greater risks. But if you need yet another reminder that the virus ultimately calls the shots (pardon the pun) for us, here it is.
I’m a bus driver for one of the largest school districts in New York’s Hudson Valley. Serving more than 8,000 students, mine has been doing its best to keep kids in classrooms despite the major surge in Omicron cases. Whether that effort is due to parental and political pressure, the poor results of remote “classes” (I use that term loosely) or the simple desire for normalcy, I can’t say. It’s probably a combination of those factors.
Anyway, schools in my district were recently forced to close for a few days because too many of my colleagues were out sick, in quarantine, or had just tested positive and we were pushed past the breaking point. Already in the grip of the national driver shortage, we’ve been using qualified mechanics and office staff members to fill in. Now we could no longer cover enough routes for enough schools (we serve more than 15 twice a day) and needed time for enough drivers to recover.
Pilots of the Big Yellow Madhouse are an often overlooked piece in the school puzzle, but our presence (or lack thereof) has certainly been felt since the pandemic started in early 2020. Driving kids to and from their institutions of learning is a huge hassle for many parents, especially if their working hours conflict with a school’s schedule. Some parents have no way of getting their kids there. Others have no computers or even Internet access for remote classes.
I certainly understand parental and teacher anxiety. Last summer my colleagues and I ferried a record number of students who needed extra classes because their grades had fallen dramatically during our three extended lockdowns from March 2020 to June 2021. Getting students to engage, pay attention or even log on to remote sessions is a tall order, especially for very young kids.
Parents who need child care during the day are understandably anxious to focus on their jobs in the face of economic pressure. Angie Schmitt recently wrote a thoughtful piece for the Atlantic titled “Why I Soured on the Democrats: COVID school policies set me adrift from my tribe.” The mother of two elementary schoolers in Cleveland, Schmitt decries threat exaggeration by the political left and the overuse of extreme interventions (mask and vaccine mandates, remote classes) that are disproportionate to risk, cost and the needs of kids. She also laments not having paid sick leave and the way that working women are shamed for complaining about the burdens of having children stuck at home.
As a father, I sympathize with the tough spot parents are in. The bitter irony is that our society demands that they devote much of their life to work, often out of economic necessity, and then complains that kids these days are rotten because they don’t get enough parental supervision. We drivers see plenty of behavioral problems in the best of times. Now, despite claims to the contrary, they rarely have to do with having to wear masks. Kids are being much more cooperative about this matter than adults.
I fully believe that kids are best off in school, but the inconvenient truth remains that even with the recent federal relaxation of qualification requirements, we'll still have a driver shortage, for the foreseeable future.
Frankly, the change won't make a difference. I know I wasn't, and most people aren't, aware of the old "know-thy-engine-parts" requirement for getting a commercial drivers license with a school bus certification. You just ran into them as part of the process, which unfolds as you go. If they really want to solve the shortage, they'll significantly hike the pay and benefits, but that would mean boosting property taxes to cover them. Will never happen.
Some drivers are retiring rather than get sick. Many are voicing discontent with low pay (typically $20 an hour or less for a five-hour workday), challenging demands, and lack of respect and support.
There is also grumbling about our district’s “vaccinate or be tested weekly” mandate. But requiring drivers to stay home when sick or showing early symptoms is consistent with our standard policy against coming to work with a bad cold, the flu, a stomach virus or some other contagious malady. That is only common sense and courtesy to co-workers, students, teachers and parents who do not wish to share in the wheezy, sneezy, hacking, chundering fun.
The bottom line: People are going to get sick no matter what we do, but the easier we make it to get sick with Covid, the more often disruptions like the one in my district will occur.
For months, I’ve been hearing rumors about my district shutting down for long periods. I’ve also been reading about school bus service disruptions across the country. The Litchfield Elementary School District in Arizona just suspended four routes indefinitely. Rage all you want at school boards and administrators about the evils of masks and vaccines and remote learning, but Omicron and our chaotic hodgepodge of pandemic responses are blowing holes in all strategies to get back to normal.
I’ve always wondered if those of us who are “afraid” of Covid stayed home and hid in our basements — as some folks suggest — while the unmasked and unvaccinated went to work, what would happen to the economy and life in general when those so-called brave souls started dropping like flies?
Look at the ripple effect illness among a small but essential group such as school bus drivers can have. There’s your answer.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.