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Orchard to delay school hours due to bus driver shortage

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Orchard Drive Elementary School will open and close an hour later this upcoming school year due to the shortage of bus drivers in the Jackson R-2 School District. The school day will start at 9 a.m. and end at 4:10 p.m., starting the first day of school on Aug. 22.

The Jackson R-2 School Board approved the change on July 26 during a special board meeting. Associate Superintendent Keenan Kinder said the delayed start will allow some bus drivers to complete two routes each morning and afternoon.

“We don’t have enough bus drivers to start school under normal circumstances, so we are going to have to operate on a tiered system,” Kinder said. “Six to eight of the shortest routes will deliver their students, then run the Orchard routes and deliver those elementary kids.”

Kinder said the buses will still pick up middle school, junior high and high school students during the regular time, even if they have younger siblings that go to Orchard.

“We can fit secondary kids on certain buses, but we can’t get their younger siblings on that bus because the load limit would be too high,” Kinder said, adding that some stops will have to be visited multiple times by school buses each morning and afternoon.

The school will still open every day at 7 a.m. to allow parents and guardians to drop off their students early due to their work schedules or other circumstances. “We will have staff hired to watch them and have some activities for them,” Superintendent Scott Smith said.

After School Kids’ Club will also remain available for students who need after school care from the end of the school day until 5:45 p.m., but Orchard families who use the program will be charged a lower price due to the shortened time frame.

Meal times will be adjusted because of the schedule change, with breakfast now being served at 8 a.m. Kinder said the district is currently working on providing snacks for Orchard students who need them before breakfast is served.

Orchard Drive Elementary students who ride the bus will be picked up between 7:45-8:45 p.m. and will be able to purchase breakfast before classes begin at 9 a.m.

“When we decided to go to a tiered system, we wanted to make the least disruptive change to deliver all of our students to all of our schools,” Kinder said. “Orchard was chosen because it has the smallest geographic area to cover. This in turn leads to shorter route times.”

Kinder said they were able to limit the impact to one school, but that required eliminating bus routes and using all available bus drivers. “This is starting with almost every sub we have driving, plus one of our mechanics driving every day,” he said.
Smith said the district thought they would have to delay school hours at both Orchard Drive Elementary School and East Elementary School earlier in the planning process.

“At one point we thought we would have to do two buildings this way,” Smith said. “Through the work the transportation team has done, we have been able to consolidate it down to one building affected at this time.”

Kinder said the district consolidated many routes – including combining a Burfordville and Millersville route and eliminating a route near North Elementary with lower ridership. Smith added that some buses will be packed this coming school year due to the elimination of multiple routes.

“There will be some routes where students will have to ride a bus a little longer,” Smith said. “That’s another problem that we don’t like, but if we are going to transport students, which we are required to do, and we want to be able to do it safely – this is our best measure we could come up with.”

Smith said the district looked at expanding the radius around schools where students wouldn’t be picked up by buses and would have to walk to school, which is currently around a half mile.

“We could extend that travel radius, but because we are rural, we would have students that would have to cross Highway 25, Jackson Boulevard and other highways where there’s no crosswalk or sidewalk and it’s not safe,” Smith said.

Smith said the transportation changes were not made for financial reasons, adding that the changes will add additional costs for the district associated with keeping the Orchard school building open longer each day and to increase the salaries for those who will monitor students in the mornings.

“South and West Lane will also be impacted because we will need kids dropped off at 7:15 a.m. instead of 7:25-7:30 a.m. to free up those buses to get started on the Orchard routes quicker,” Kinder said. “So that adds an additional coverage issue.”

Kinder said several drivers will move to full-time status and schedules for staff members who split their time between school buildings including Orchard – such as behavioral interventionists, speech pathologists – will need to be adjusted.

Schedules for coaches who teach at Orchard will also need to be adjusted. In addition, some sport practice bus routes – such as transporting Jackson High School swim athletes to a pool in Cape Girardeau – will also not be offered at the start of the school year due to the lack of bus drivers.

Kinder said the district will continue to recruit new bus drivers, with another training event scheduled for late September or October. He said the district had around five candidates who are in the process of being trained and hired.

“We have to keep getting the word out to get drivers, but we also have to start school on Aug. 22,” Kinder said. “If we kick this can down the road too long, that’s not fair to the parents of Orchard or the staff of Orchard, because they are going to have to make some shifts in their habits.”

Smith said the district was down 16 drivers at the beginning of the summer and still needs to fill 12 more spots to have a full staff of drivers. “We will pay them while they are getting trained and we will reimburse them for any expenses they are out to get licensed,” he said. “I’m hoping that if people hear that we have to make these adjustments, people may be more willing to drive for us,” Smith said.

“As soon as we can get enough drivers, we want to get back to normal,” Kinder said. “We are going to reevaluate in November and hopefully have enough drivers then to go back to our regular start times for the second semester.”

Both Smith and Kinder said the district would be open to switching back to the regular school hours even earlier if there is an influx in new drivers, but it could take time to get drivers licensed and ready to take a route.

“We have over 5900 kids pre-K through 12th grade in our school district and around 3,000 of those kids ride a school bus every day,” Kinder said. “I can guarantee that every single route, every single load on those routes and the entire ridership list has been reviewed and we don’t have any other options.”

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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