A help wanted sign for Cyr Bus hangs on a school bus in the parking lot of the Old Town-Orono YMCA. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

PORTLAND — Maine’s two largest school districts are facing a critical shortage of bus drivers, and parents have been warned to prepare for the possibility that some routes will be canceled.

Portland school officials said they were forced to cancel a bus route Monday, impacting seven children who had to stay home.

In Lewiston, the superintendent said if one more driver calls out, the district will have no choice but to cancel a bus run. The superintendent said nine school bus drivers were out Tuesday, eight with COVID and one following a medical event.

Next week, two drivers are leaving for other jobs.

“So far it’s been pretty good. They’ve been picking them up, but there’s not a lot of bus drivers,” parent Mike Spencer said.

Spencer depends on the school bus to get his daughters to and from school.

He said with their regular driver out sick, a substitute took over their bus route.

“How would we parents, like me, I’m a walker, I walk everywhere I go, how would I get two little kids a mile and a half to their school?” Spencer said.

“This shortage puts families in a challenging situation. Not everyone has the means to get students to school,” Superintendent Jake Langlas said.

“I’m worried about a shutdown, and I know it’ll affect the kids like it did last year,” Lewiston school bus driver Ashley Henry said. “We need people very bad. If we have healthy people out there that can do this job, we need them to come in.”

Henry works for the company contracted to run Lewiston’s bus routes.

They’re offering $1,500 sign-on bonuses to new drivers.

The Portland school district could double that Tuesday night, with the board possibly voting to offer $3,000 hiring and retention bonuses for new and current school bus drivers.

“Fortunately, we haven’t lost anyone through retirement or anything because of the COVID scare. We got a pretty dedicated bunch here in Portland,” Portland school bus driver Armand Doracio said. “Still short-handed.”

Doracio has driven Portland school buses for 30 years. He says he’s never seen a driver shortage this bad.

“Any day. Like I could go out tomorrow and it could be my route,” Doracio said. “Or another driver could go out tomorrow, and it would mean a bus getting canceled somewhere. And it’s unfortunate for the kids.”

“What’s a teacher going to do if no kids arrive at the school?” Spencer said. “They can’t teach nobody if nobody’s there.”

Several bus drivers across Maine quit rather than risk getting COVID on a school bus.

The Portland district said it’s now contracted with a private company to add one more bus and a 15-passenger van to help fill in when drivers are out.