Bus driver shortages continue to impact Denver-area schools

When Dallas Rael decided to send her son to Morey Middle School, she thought a Denver Public Schools bus would take him to and from the campus three miles from their home.

She had chosen to send William, a sixth grader, to Morey in Capitol Hill instead of their neighborhood school — Lake Middle School, near Sloan’s Lake — because of its highly gifted and talented program and because the district told her transportation would be available, Rael said.

But when Rael registered William for school this summer, she discovered DPS had cut some bus routes, including the one he needed to get to Morey. Now the mother and son take two RTD buses each weekday morning to get William to class on time because the family doesn’t own a car.

“Nobody told us or informed us they were cutting bus stops,” Rael said, adding that, if she had known that would happen, “We wouldn’t have considered sending him there.”

Morey is one of six schools that lost bus service either partially or entirely when DPS implemented new bell times for the 2023-24 academic year.

The changes to DPS’s bus routes come as districts across the U.S., including those in metro Denver, are struggling to drive children to school amid staffing shortages that have persisted ever since students returned to the classroom following the early pandemic shutdowns.

In the neighboring Douglas County School District, the bus driver shortage has only gotten worse. The district is short 104 drivers this year, up from the 75 vacancies the district reported last year.

The Douglas County district started using a rolling bus cancelation schedule after administrators had to cut routes with little to no notice to families last year. Under the new plan, each bus route runs for four weeks and then is “off” for the fifth week, spokeswoman Paula Hans said.

The district’s hope is that by using the new schedule, it can limit last-minute cancellations, she said.

“It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s the best we have at this time when we have so many driver openings,” Hans said.

For the second year in a row, the district’s Board of Education will ask Douglas County voters to approve a $60 million mill levy override so that it can give employees a raise — an action administrators say is needed to both recruit and retain employees, including bus drivers.

Jeffco Public Schools is also still facing a bus driver shortage, but the situation has improved, with only 19 vacancies at the start of the 2023-24 academic year vs. the 60 the district had last year.

Jeffco closed 16 elementary schools this year because of declining enrollment, which reduced how many bus routes the district needed to provide, spokeswoman Kimberly Eloe said.

Like DPS, the district also changed its start times so that older students begin class later and elementary students start earlier. The district has said research shows that older students’ mental health improves with later start times, as do their attendance and graduation rates.

Jeffco Public Schools “gained efficiency” with its bus routes when it changed the time school starts, Eloe said.

One change the district made, she said, was to consolidate bus routes into what administrators call “hub stops.” Under this model, drivers make a single stop — rather than multiple ones — in a neighborhood because children meet in one place to catch the bus, Eloe said.

“Every district is having to get creative to see how do you serve the most students possible,”  she said.

“A finite number of drivers”

The changes under DPS’s Healthy Start Times resolution, adopted by the Board of Education two years ago, pushed back the time classes begin for middle- and high-schoolers.

School days for some elementary schools also begin earlier than they used to. The changes were made to allow older students to get at least eight-and-a-half hours of sleep, which improves their physical and mental health, according to the resolution.

The start-time changes increased the number of bus routes needed, which DPS had to offset by cutting services even as it added more drivers this year, said Albert Samora, the district’s executive director of transportation.

“Transportation has a finite number of drivers,” he said. “We had to make sure we were conscious of the resources we had.”

DPS gained between eight and 10 new bus drivers this year, Samora said, adding that the district hasn’t had to cancel routes because of the driver shortage since 2019.

But the district reduced how many bus routes it offers to minimize the impact the new school start times would have on staffing, he said.

DPS officials decided what changes to make based on how many students rode a route and how many of those students qualified for free- or reduced-cost lunch, Samora said.

Not all of Morey’s routes were impacted. The district is also discussing whether to start a shuttle service to the school, which would run more like an RTD bus with periodic stops throughout the mornings and afternoon, Samora said.

“Put working parents in a bind”

Rael, whose son goes to Morey, said DPS officials told her that she could take William to a stop near another school to be picked up and taken to Morey. But the pickup location is about three miles from their home — the same distance as Morey, only in a different direction, Rael said.

Rael doesn’t feel comfortable sending William on the bus alone so she takes him in the morning and rides home on an electric scooter. Her husband often rides the bus and rail home with him in the afternoon when Rael is at work.

“Some parents like myself are income-limited,” she said. “There’s times where I can’t even afford to take him on the bus.”

Jae McClain is a single parent of twins who go to different schools. Her son, Oliver Saul, goes to Morey, while her daughter, Miranda Saul, goes to Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences. Both schools start at 9 a.m. and end at 4 p.m.

DPS is allowing McClain to drop her son off at a bus stop that still provides service to Morey. But transportation to the school is still not guaranteed, she said.

“Why don’t we have transportation for these kids to get to school?” McClain asked.

McClain, who used to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., also had to change her schedule so that she could pick both of her children up from school. Her new schedule is from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., meaning that she still misses about an hour of work so that she can drop her kids off for school.

She had looked into renting a private bus or van to transport kids affected by the bus route changes to Morey, but both were too costly. She also considered carpooling with other families but said that would have taken even more time out of her work schedule.

“It really does put working parents in a bind,” McClain said. “This only works because I work from home.”

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