Nella Mihan, a fifth grader at Fairmount School, and her brother Eric, a second grader at Vine Street School, work on assignments at home after Bangor’s public schools shut down for in-person instruction on Tuesday morning after the department’s bus contractor, Cyr Bus Line, reported cases of COVID-19 that led to a shortage of available drivers. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Some Bangor parents were frustrated by the abrupt shift to remote instruction this week after the school department’s bus contractor recorded up to seven COVID-19 cases, but they said the school department ultimately made the right call for students’ safety.

Five bus drivers and staff who assist them had tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, with two more bus employees showing symptoms. That led Bangor to shut down all public schools for the day due to a lack of drivers. The switch to remote learning came just hours before school was set to begin.

Six schools were supposed to reopen Wednesday, but Cyr Bus Line told the school department shortly after 7 a.m. — with even less advance notice than on Tuesday — that no bus drivers were willing to work due to fear of catching the virus. Those schools remained open Wednesday, but the school department switched to remote instruction for all schools for the remainder of this week because of the lack of available drivers and the need for so many students to quarantine because of potential exposure to the virus.

Nella Mihan, a fifth grader at Fairmount School, and her brother Eric, a second grader at Vine Street School, work on assignments at home after Bangor’s public schools shut down for in-person instruction on Tuesday morning after the department’s bus contractor, Cyr Bus Line, reported cases of COVID-19 that led to a shortage of available drivers. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“Finding out at 5:30 a.m. that kids will have to stay home is beyond stressful. My partner and I are both teachers, and we don’t have the option to just stay home when there’s no school,” said Brooke Dupuy, a Bangor parent with children in first and fifth grades who teaches in a different school district. “But going remote with all of these close contacts and no bus transportation was absolutely the right thing to do, even if it’s hard for parents.”

The Bangor School Department is one of the largest in Maine that has offered in-person classes five days a week this school year. Parents have opted either for full-time, in-person instruction; a hybrid arrangement in which students attend in-person classes part of the week and learn from home the rest; or for fully remote learning. A few of the city’s schools have switched to remote learning for a week or two at a time since the start of the school year due to COVID-19 cases, but this week marked the first time all city schools had gone remote.

Parent Christine Mihan said her children — who attend Vine Street and Fairmount schools five days a week — were upset when they learned they would have to stay home for the rest of the week. Mihan has juggled working from home, and her children have returned to using the dinner table as a makeshift classroom as they did last spring.

“Those of us that are working rely on public schools to help us all with our routine. The kids go to school and we go to work,” she said. “I feel for these bus drivers, but this is disrupting the entire community.”

Cyr Bus Line representatives have not responded to multiple requests for comment this week.

Bill Siemers’ first thought when he found out about remote learning on Tuesday was that it would have been easier for parents to find alternative transportation than accommodate an unexpected remote learning day.

School buses parked at Cyr Bus on Ohio Street in Bangor on Wednesday January 20, 2021. No school bus drivers were available to work on Wednesday, leaving parents of students at six Bangor schools to deal with the last minute transportation change. Cyr Bus employees did not feel safe working due to the large number of people already having tested positive for COVID-19. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

But after he learned that hundreds of students who ride buses were exposed to COVID-19 and would have to quarantine, he believed the switch to remote learning was the right call.

Siemers’ children, who attend William S. Cohen and Bangor High schools, are used to remote learning at this point, he said. Both have had their schools go remote because of virus cases, and by now they are used to the abrupt change from in-person to online schooling.

But it’s not his family he’s most worried about with the district-wide switch to remote learning.

“It’s devastating news when we find out that schools have to be shut down, even if the reasons for shutting them down are obvious and it’s important,” Siemers said. “But beyond just being frustrated, I’m so worried about children for whom the school is their only connection to essential services. Public schools are a lifeline for many families.”

Students from low-income families and those without stable internet connections bear the brunt of switches to remote learning, as parents from those families are more likely to have inflexible work schedules and their internet connections might not support their online classes.

The Bangor School Department raised money at the start of the pandemic to provide mobile hotspots and laptops to students without internet access. And the school department has continued to provide meals even when schools have closed their physical doors.

This week, Interim Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg said meals are available for pickup at all 10 schools. Parents can go to any school to pick up a meal, not necessarily the school their children attend.

The school department is still looking for a solution to the bus driver shortage, Harris-Smedberg said, but it plans to provide at least some busing to families that need it when schools reopen Monday.

After originally planning to reopen school buildings Monday, the Bangor School Department told parents Thursday night that the buildings would remain closed for at least one more day. Meanwhile, the department is surveying parents to find out how many students need busing next week, because the school system still expects that not enough drivers will be available.

If enough parents can arrange alternate transportation from Tuesday to Friday, the school department can provide limited busing to those who need it, Harris-Smedberg said.

“Any time that you have something that impacts an economy, then it would affect people that are low-income disproportionately,” she said. “But I think we’re trying very hard to make sure there’s things in place.”

Watch more: