Monday morning dawned cold but clear, with no bad weather in the forecast. But at about 6 a.m., parents of the 86 children who attend the Kermit S. Nickerson Elementary School in Swanville learned that classes would be canceled anyway.
The reason why?
Regional School Unit 71 has a critical shortage of substitute bus drivers, and when several drivers were unable to work Monday morning, school officials decided they had no option other than to cancel school.
“It’s a scenario that’s very unlikely to happen again,” Mary Alice McLean, the RSU 71 superintendent, said Monday afternoon. “My main concern today was to put together an alternative plan so we wouldn’t have this problem again.”
The district includes Belfast, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville, but Swanville was the only affected community. The cancellation came as an unwelcome surprise to parents such as Jes Vaillancourt, who has two children at Nickerson School. When the text alerting her to the situation came in at 6 a.m., she was almost angry, she said.
“Who is texting me at this hour?” she recalled thinking. “And then I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got to be kidding me.’ This cancellation was a little strange, to say the least. I’m no expert, but there had to have been another way to fix the problem.”
McLean said that she was working on that. If there is a driver shortage in the future, the district will combine bus runs with other schools instead of canceling classes at one particular school.
Officials also are planning to address the shortage of substitutes beyond the aggressive advertising they already have been doing. Caitlin Hills, the chairperson of the RSU 71 Board of Directors, said that finding more bus drivers will be a top priority.
“This, to us, is really an unacceptable situation,” she said. “Now it’s really impacting students’ education, and parents, too. We have been taking it seriously. But now it has risen to the level of needing to take some immediate steps to rectify the situation.”
Canceling school because of a lack of bus drivers is not something that happens in the usual run of events, Hills, McLean and other Maine education experts said. But what isn’t out of the ordinary is the fact that many school districts and communities around the state have been struggling to hire enough qualified people for positions including bus drivers, substitute bus drivers and substitute teachers.
“It’s a growing problem,” Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association and the Maine School Boards Association, said of the bus driver shortage. “It seems to have really crystallized this year.”
Bailey and others said that the tight labor market is likely playing a big role in the shortage for substitutes and part-time drivers. Mark Hurvitt, the superintendent for School Union 93 in Blue Hill, said one of the big challenges faced by his district is finding bus drivers.
“I’m guessing that the 20-hour-per-week, part-time job is just not appealing to everybody,” he said. “We’ve upped our starting pay to address this issue.”
But even with positions starting at $20 per hour, job openings attract just one or even no applicants, he said. That may also be because driving school buses is not for everyone. It requires that people go through training and get a specific license, and be able to control a bus full of children — not always an easy task.
“It’s a skill set that calls for excellent understanding of the roads and conditions, and driving enormous vehicles filled with little human beings of various ages,” McLean said. “We’re very grateful that we have such a dedicated crew of bus drivers. They are great folks. They care tremendously and are often the first adult our children see during the day.”
The superintendent is just looking for a few more of them.
“Today was a fluke,” she said. “This won’t happen again.”