A shortage of bus drivers, failed inspections and route delays created chaos for school districts when classes began last week.

In the Oxford Hills district, headquartered in Paris, the bus garage failed inspection Tuesday, a day before classes started.

The district lost its license to internally certify that buses are safe, Superintendent Monica Henson said. The license suspension is for 90 days. Commercial inspectors have been hired to inspect the fleet.

Seven buses were still disabled Wednesday and another broke down on King Street in Oxford, compounding delays. Information on the number of buses in the district was not available Friday.

The sprawling district is short one driver and no substitutes are available, Henson said.

When she took over as superintendent June 30, she did an introductory audit of each department. She found that the bus garage had some longstanding issues that were not obvious, with fewer students in school and human resources stretched.

Mechanics had been filling in for drivers, she said.

“Frankly, I was dismayed to learn that mechanics have been driving routes prior to my arrival,” she said. “This is a fundamental breach of responsibility to the safety of children and drivers.”

As of Aug. 11, neither of the two mechanics nor the transportation department director are allowed to fill in as substitute drivers, she said.

“The overarching primary responsibility (of a superintendent) is to ensure the safety of students and staff,” Henson said. “Providing transportation by school bus is a resource. Lack of available drivers is an obstacle.”

She said she would work with the school board to find solutions.

“No first day of school is ever 100% functional,” Henson said. “I am very grateful that we are able to bring students back into their buildings and I am grateful to the board of directors for making sure it is done safely.”

The transportation director could not be reached Friday for comment.

‘DELAYS, DISRUPTIONS, ADJUSTMENTS AND CHANGES’

In Lewiston, buses ran late Wednesday “as part of the start-of-year wrinkles we need to iron out,” Superintendent Jake Langlais said. He said things were better Thursday as the district continued to work out delays. Thousands of students are bused to Lewiston schools each day.

“Busing the first week or so of school always has delays, disruptions, adjustments and changes,” Langlais said.

The district contracts services with Hudson Bus Co., which hires the drivers. Lewiston does not have a shortage of drivers, Langlais said.

Lewiston Middle School students walk to their respective buses Friday at the end of the school day. The buses pull out at an angle before the kids board to help remind driver they can not pass while children are boarding. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

He said enrollments continued to grow throughout the week, which caused transportation issues such as adds, stops and timing changes.

“Not to mention, when we take a year and a half out of routines, it can be hard to reestablish them,” he said.

Fewer students rode buses each day last year because the district adopted a hybrid model of instruction, with two groups of students each attending twice a week. They received remote instruction the rest of the week. Other students received fully remote instruction.

“Busing last year was very different due to the cohorts and limited students by cohort,” Langlais said.

He said other reasons for confusion the first week of the new school year were:

• Bus numbers changed from last year so the district can meet the demand for busing as we are back to school in full.

• Some students did not know which bus to get on to go home. “We don’t leave kids behind, so we guided them. As we guided, it created delays that compounded the next school bus run timing and that trickled to the one after. We make runs to multiple schools every morning and afternoon.”

• “We are examining dismissal procedures. Some schools have had success dismissing by grade and some by bus. As we move forward and sharpen the run windows, we will adjust accordingly.”

“All in all,” Langlais said, “busing time frames will improve once we run them a few times. I want to thank everyone for their patience.”

In a preemptive move, Regional School Unit 4 Superintendent Andrew Carlton asked for patience Tuesday “as we iron out some bugs in transportation” in a note to parents in the district’s towns of Sabattus, Wales and Litchfield.

“Currently, our Transportation Department is short-staffed and we have had a significant number of (student) registrations over the course of the last week,” Carlton wrote.

“While our drivers have driven the runs numerous times, there is no question that things change when students are on our buses.”

He asked parents to keep in mind that the bus routes were “brand new” and it would take time to make sure they were as efficient as possible.

“Our bus drivers are amazing and I know that as they work through these challenges, things will improve,” Carlton wrote. “I appreciate your understanding as we check and adjust over the coming weeks.”

In follow-up notes Wednesday, Carlton announced at 2:40 p.m. that congestion at Oak Hill Middle School had caused the middle and high school runs to be 15 minutes behind schedule, “which means your elementary run will be delayed.”

At 3:28 p.m., he announced that buses were 22 minutes late.

DRIVER SHORTAGES

Rumford-based RSU 10 has 35 buses and transports 1,700 students each day. The district is short three drivers, one in the Rumford area and two in the Buckfield area, out of a total of 43, the director of buildings, grounds and transportation said.

Scott Holmes said the bus driver shortage is a national problem.

“A lot of schools have part-time drivers, with a bus run in the morning and one at night,” he said. “People with families need full-time employment.”

And driving a school bus comes with a lot of responsibility, he said.

“Providing a ride to and from school for 40-plus students safely, efficiently, on time, all while supervising the students (usually alone) can be very stressful,” Holmes said. “I have great respect for all bus drivers.”

He said the district is doing its best to return to former bus routes after a year and a half of disruption.

Wayne Thomas, left, Rycc Smith and Diane Thomas share a laugh Friday before picking up Lewiston Middle School students at the end of the day. The three like to get to the line up early. Thomas drives her bus and her husband, Wayne, is the monitor. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“We are following (state and federal Centers for Disease Control and Maine Department of Education) guidelines, with mandatory masking, proper ventilation and assigned seats,” he said.

Masks are required on all public transportation, including school buses, according to a federal rule.

An increase in parent pickups and drop-offs has been challenging, Holmes said. “We are doing our best to manage (it) in a safe manner.”

Schools where it is physically possible have established separate bus and parent drop-off areas, he said.

“That, in itself, has brought other unforeseen challenges, but we are doing our best to make sure our students get on and off our buses in the safest manner possible,” Holmes said.

SAD 52 (Turner, Greene and Leeds) has two bus driver openings, but they are expected to be filled by mid-September, Superintendent Kimberly Brandt said.

The district has a total of 21 bus driver positions, she said.

“Our Transportation Department does a great job of supporting new and potential drivers,” she said.

“Once a potential driver has fingerprinting done and has his or her permit, he or she rides on the bus with an experienced driver and has the opportunity to learn about the routes, the children and the bus driver job expectations. This experience helps to acclimate them to our district.”

The district saw “a few” route delays this past week, she said, “and the few we had were resolved.”

Brandt said that so far this year, more parents are driving their children to school than pre-pandemic but not nearly as many as last year.

‘GOOD COOPERATION’

RSU 56 in Dixfield is fully staffed with 22 licensed drivers for its 12 bus and three van runs per day to three schools, the director of buildings, grounds and transportation said.

Kenny Robbins said the district transports roughly 750 students a day to its high, middle and elementary schools.

School started Wednesday and so far, no transportation problems, he said late last week.

“We’re very, very fortunate and bus drivers are really hard to come by,” he said.

“Last year, we were social distancing and we were using everyone, including our two mechanics,” Robbins said. “I was driving either a van or a bus a day and we had custodians.”

The district uses 84- or 78-passenger buses and averages 45-50 students per bus, “so, we’re not jampacked. We’re doing assigned seating” so everyone knows where to sit.

“Windows are all open,” he said. “We’re running the windows all down. Even in the wintertime last year we made sure we had four completely open.”

Robbins said that “for the most part, we’re getting good cooperation” from parents about putting kids on buses instead of driving them to school.

“We do have a pretty good number at the elementary school where parents do pick up and drop off, but for the most part everybody’s being transported,” he said.

He said the district’s lack of transportation issues was likely because of its small size.

“We can do, maybe, a few extra things that some of the larger districts can’t,” he said.

He said Administrative Assistant Terri Cox had given every teacher a bus run with each student on it with pickup times and drop-off times.

“She’s put a tremendous amount of time in this, and is one of the reasons it’s gone so smooth,” Robbins said. “There is a lot of cooperation between the transportation office and the secretaries in the building. We’re small, so we can do that.”

RSU 73 Transportation Director Jim Shink said that district has enough drivers to cover its routes. The district includes Jay, Livermore Falls and Livermore.

“We’re there,” Shink said. “Kids are either not out there or they got a ride to school.”

All schools have established separate areas for parent and bus drop-offs, he said.

He said it’s difficult to say in the first week whether more parents are driving kids to school, but with required masking on buses, that may be the case. He’ll know more in two to three weeks, he said.

All students are back to in-person instruction, which may be having some impact, he said. All schools are starting at about the same time, so there is only one bus run again.

“Everything’s going pretty smooth for the first week of school,” he said.

Sun Media writers Nicole Carter, Pam Harnden, Kathryn Skelton and Judy Meyer contributed to this report.

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