Vaccine mandate exacerbates Washington’s school bus driver shortage

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a vaccine requirement for all employees working in K-12 Schools. Washington is now the second state to require vaccines for school employees.

However, California allows its bus drivers and other school employees to be tested at least once a week for COVID-19 alternative to vaccinations.

That is not the case in Washington.

Inslee stated on Aug. 18 that all K-12 educators, school staff, coaches, bus drivers, school volunteers and others working in school facilities will have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated, “as a condition of employment.” The requirement also includes public, private and charter schools across the state.

“It has been a long pandemic, and our students and teachers have borne their own unique burdens throughout,” Inslee said. “This virus is increasingly impacting young people, and those under the age of 12 still can’t get the vaccine for themselves. We won’t gamble with the health of our children, our educators and school staff, nor the health of the communities they serve.”

In addition, he enacted a statewide indoor mask mandate.

For Puyallup School District south of Seattle, this could mean an even more severe driver shortage. Director of Transportation Elizabeth Fisher told School Transportation News that as of two weeks ago her district was already down six drivers due to COVID-19 and early retirements. However, after the governor’s vaccine mandate, another four drivers resigned last week.

Governor’s mandate

Fisher added that her operation is now down 10 drivers with four sub-drivers available to help. “A district our size should have up to 20 sub drivers to help cover daily absences,” Fisher added. “I do anticipate, depending on the outcome of the exemptions, we could lose a few more to start the school year and a handful by the October deadline if the Governor’s mandate is not reversed or adjusted.”

Had Gov. Inslee allowed regular testing, she said she would not expect as many drivers to quit. “If we were given the choice to be tested regularly, I do not feel like drivers would walk away from a career they have [in]vested in,” she said. “And again, our team here at Puyallup will not give up in our recruiting efforts. We have hit a speed bump and helping our staff to keep in a positive mental state is important to keeping our buses on the road.”

She added that she and her staff are currently identifying routes that may be consolidated, and the office employees might have to start training as drivers for the school year that starts on Sept. 2. She has also reached out to outside agencies for assistance with district transportation.

“As the governor’s mandate was announced, it did set us back,” she said. “Our staff is concerned. It isn’t about the mask mandate; it is the vaccination requirement. However, it is our obligation and mission to provide safe and reliable transportation for our students.”

Risk management

She added that the district’s risk management team has been working closely with the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the health department, and the Department of Labor and Industries to cover the safety measures for students and staff. She added that the district expects to receive more information on exemptions in the coming days, in which that information will be shared with drivers.

Meanwhile, Seattle Public Schools announced its own vaccine mandate for employees a week prior to the governor’s announcement. Spokesman Tim Robinson said driver hiring has gone “remarkably well” for its vendor partner First Student.

“They expect to be fully staffed by the start of school and expect to have a full roster of backup drivers a month later,” Robinson relayed.

Despite school bus drivers not being employed directly by the district, Seattle Superintendent Brent Jones announced on Aug. 19 that, “Vaccines are another critical strategy in our fight against COVID-19. Yesterday, Gov. Inslee announced that the State of Washington’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement will be extended to K-12 educators, school staff, coaches, bus drivers, school volunteers, and others working in school facilities. Our central office team will immediately begin working with our labor partners to implement this state mandate for all our staff.”

Reprinted with permission from School Transportation NewsRead the original post.


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