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Bus driver shortage affects winter sports at Forestview

Derek Hendrickson, activities director at Forestview Middle School is looking at intramural and hybrid options for winter sports this year, as there may not be enough bus drivers to get athletes to and from their events.

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Jack Freeman and Derek Hendrickson, activities directors at Brainerd High School and Forestview Middle School update the school board Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, about challenges caused by the statewide bus driver shortage. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Widespread school bus driver shortages mean middle school athletes at Brainerd Public Schools might not be able to compete at the same level as usual this winter.

Derek Hendrickson, activities director at Forestview Middle School, told the school board Monday, Nov. 8, he is looking at intramural and hybrid options for winter sports this year, as there may not be enough bus drivers to get athletes to and from their events.

According to a survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Education in October, 86% of school districts in the state are experiencing a bus driver shortage. These shortages lead to routes running late, more errors with substitute drivers stepping in, districts collaborating with each other, limited field trip and athletic event coverage, driver burnout concerns and longer rides.

At Forestview, it could mean fewer trips to sporting events.

Forestview Middle School had 33 trip requests for athletics this fall. Five were not able to be covered, and seven required challenging time adjustments, Hendrickson said, which meant students had to sit outside at opposing schools for up to two hours prior to the start of an event so the driver could be free for another route.

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In some instances, it was unknown if a bus would be available for an event until half an hour before the departure time, and communicating with staff, students and families in a timely manner when events had to be canceled was a challenge, Hendrickson said.

He anticipates even more challenges in the winter, as the high school will see an increase in trip requests with more winter than fall sports and leaving students outside a school for hours before an event won’t be an option in the colder weather.

Among the eight varsity sports at Brainerd High School, there were 93 trip requests in the fall. That number is estimated to increase to 132 with the 14 winter sports, along with various trips for fine arts activities like music, one-act play, knowledge bowl, speech and mock trial.

Most of the challenges during the fall, BHS Activities Director Jack Freeman said, came on Tuesdays and Thursdays, where there were multiple events scheduled. There were a couple instances when coaches had to drive themselves or some of the players separately in a van and one day when volleyball start times had to be pushed back in Sartell so a bus could drop some players off and then go back for more.

Freeman said he is encouraging all high school coaches to get their Type III driver’s license to be able to transport students in one of the district’s four vans if needed. While he noted that’s not a long-term solution, it could be a short-term fix when the district is in a bind.

Any other community members who have the time to get the right license and help out are encouraged to do so as well.

“We need drivers, and we need our community to hear that,” Freeman said.

Intramural or hybrid sports

The intramural proposal for middle school sports would mean no traveling, no competitors coming to Brainerd and only in-house competition.

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Nordic ski coaches Mary Claire Ryan and Tiffany Knapp spoke during the public forum Monday about how this model would not be conducive to their sport, which includes 140 kids in fifth through 12th grade.

While other sports — like basketball — might be able to come up with five or six teams of kids for intramural competition, Nordic ski is different in that the skiers would have no one to compete against except each other, which is not much fun, Ryan said.

“Competition is the backbone of what we do, and without it, growth is stunted for athletes,” Ryan said.

As of Monday, Ryan said two Nordic ski parents stepped up and applied to be drivers for both ski meets and other activities as needed. The ski teams are no strangers to being flexible, she said, as weather often affects their schedules at some point. She said she is also willing to compromise and have a meet or two that junior high athletes might not be able to go to but is glad the district is looking into a hybrid model as well.

Skiers need to be able to travel and experience different and more difficult trails than those available in Brainerd, Knapp added, and said kids competing against their teammates creates a more negative experience.

In a hybrid model, the district would host as many conference and non-conference competitions when possible, and middle school athletes would be able to travel to tournaments or invites on Saturdays, as there are typically drivers available on the weekends. Additional travel days would be added as the schedule allows and if the transportation department becomes more stabilized.

Hendrickson said he and Freeman would still assist coaches in following the district’s policy that allows seventh and eight grade athletes to compete with varsity and junior varsity teams as needed when appropriate.

Board member Charles Black Lance said he appreciates having the intramural option at this point but hopes resources will be available for the hybrid option. He said he would hate having students miss on valuable opportunities, as athletics is an important arm of academics for some.

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“I agree,” Hendrickson said. “And that’s why I’m leading towards the hybrid model versus the intramural model. It allows us flexibility to add that travel component as Reichert stabilizes and has more drivers. And the hybrid model also allows us to host games, to meet with other schools and then travel on Saturdays when buses are available.”

Superintendent Laine Larson asked if there is an option to switch some events to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the middle school level, since Tuesdays and Thursdays tend to be the busiest days with activities. Hendrickson said he has done that this year and has tried to work the middle school schedule around the high school schedule as much as possible, with events on other days of the week. The district has not yet scheduled any Wednesday events, though, so as not to conflict with church activities.

Driver shortage

The school district covers 516 square miles, with more than 4,500 students needing transportation. Reichert, the company that supplies buses and drivers for the school district, runs 54 general education routes and 17 special needs routes per day, while the district runs 11 van routes.

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Norby Klimek, transportation director at Brainerd Public Schools, and Kevra Cherne, vice president at Reichert, tell the school board Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, about the statewide bus driver shortage and how the district is coping. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

District Transportation Director Norby Klimek and Riechert Vice President Kevra Cherne told the board about some of the driver issues this year.

Reichert hired nine drivers over the summer and was fully staffed at the beginning of the school year but has lost several since school started.

Since Sept. 20, seven drivers experienced symptoms akin to COVID-19, and five had since returned as of Nov. 8. One driver died from COVID-19 in October, three left for other health reasons, three were snowbirds and two had other reasons for leaving.

It’s important to remember, Cherne said, that roughly 70-80% of Reichert drivers are 65 and over, meaning they are at a higher risk of COVID-19 to begin with.
Other factors creating the shortage — aside from COVID-19 concerns — are split shifts, the seasonal nature of the job, wages, federal transportation mask mandates, lack of interest from the younger population, lack of respect from students and parents, closed motor vehicle departments and licensing regulations.

Klimek said Reichert has done an outstanding job navigating through the shortage and is committed to continue with aggressive marketing campaigns and other efforts to stabilize its workforce.

Since the beginning of the school year, three new drivers were hired, four are in training and three more were scheduled for interviews. An advertising campaign is planned with the Brainerd Dispatch.

Any help the community can give is appreciated, Klimek said, even if it’s just filling in when needed or driving to after-school activities.

For more information on transportation, visit isd181.org/departments/transportation or call the transportation office at 218-454-6920.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

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