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JCPS bus driver ‘sickout’ leaves some students stranded at home

A JCPS bus driver heads out of the Detrick Bus Depot on Friday to take students to their second day of classes for the school year.
Jacob Munoz
A JCPS bus driver heads out of the Detrick Bus Depot on Friday to take students to their second day of classes for the school year.

JCPS mom Susie Monroe said she had to keep her daughter home Monday because her bus route to Fairdale High School was canceled.

It’s the fourth day her daughter has missed this year due to transportation issues, Monroe told LPM. That does not include the days at the beginning of the year that JCPS canceled classes.

“This is going to impact her grades because she can’t be there to get the education she needs,” Monroe said. “She’s missing valuable time.”

Districts officials said more than 140 drivers called out Monday — about a quarter of its bus driving staff. The district is facing a bus driver shortage.

JCPS families tell LPM the uncertainty is a strain on both parents and students. When bus routes are canceled, parents aren't always able to get kids to school. They worry about the impact absences could have on educational outcomes.

Drivers who spoke with LPM anonymously said their concerns center on challenging and unsafe student behavior, crowding, long hours and logistical challenges — all of which they say escalated under this year’s new transportation plan.

JCPS spokesperson Carolyn Callahan said preliminary attendance data shows 13,000 fewer students attended school this Monday than the Monday prior.

JCPS is a district of about 96,000 students.

Driver issues

One driver who participated in the sickout told LPM her top concern was difficult student behavior, saying students are frequently fighting, smoking and vaping on her bus, and verbally abusing her.

The driver, who requested to remain unnamed, said she writes referrals, but that students who engage in disruptive or dangerous behavior are still allowed to ride.

“They might suspend them for two or three days, but that’s it. They’re right back on that bus doing the same thing,” she said.

She said students who repeatedly engage in unsafe behavior should be permanently barred from the bus.

Another longtime driver who did not participate in the sickout told LPM student behavior is a top issue for his colleagues, but so are the logistical issues under the new routing system, as well as the hours.

“People aren’t happy having to clock out, eat dinner and go straight to bed,” he told LPM. “Some want evening family time. Others it’s about getting proper sleep for the job.”

JCPS says its issues stem from a dire bus driver shortage. Since 2015 the number of drivers fell from more than 1,000 to just 578 this year.

The district rolled out a new bell schedule and transportation plan in August to try to make do with a fraction of the drivers they’ve historically had. But the plan failed and delays and crowding are ongoing.

“There is no way that these kids can continue to do this all year long,” Monroe said.

She said the Jefferson County Board of Education should take action to give bus drivers more authority, and “rethink” the bus routing plan.

‘We had no choice’

When JCPS dad James Murphy went to bed Sunday night, he was hopeful his kids would have a school bus in the morning. He needed the family car for work, so in order for his children to get to school, they would need a school bus.

But at 5 a.m. Monday he got the alerts: both his children’s bus routes were canceled.

“We had no choice, the kids had to stay home,” Murphy told LPM, calling from his worksite. His children were home with his spouse who worked remotely from home Monday.

“I’m not mad at the drivers — it’s not the drivers,” Murphy said. “My issue is with the system that we say that it’s supposed to work and it doesn’t, and our kids suffer.”

Murphy said the last two years have been an “absolute nightmare” for his youngest child, a fifth grader, who struggled with the social aspects of switching to and from remote learning.

“With him withdrawing and not being able to be around kids, to now putting him back in class and him trying to adjust, and then not even knowing if he’s going to have a ride to school in the morning,” Murphy said.

Jill Alexander’s seventh grader also stayed home from school Monday due to the sickout.

Alexander proactively decided to keep her son home when she saw the alert Sunday night from JCPS, warning of an “excessive number of driver absences.”

She knew that if his afternoon bus was canceled, she would have to leave her job at UPS to pick him up before her shift was over, and didn’t want to risk it. Around 11 a.m. Monday, she got a text saying her son’s afternoon route was indeed canceled.

“It goes to show if I sent him to school he would have no way to get home because I'm at work,” Alexander wrote in a message to LPM.

Alexander said she thought the district should have made Monday a nontraditional instruction day, or NTI day, so children like hers could participate in learning.

Like Murphy, Alexander said she sees where the drivers are coming from. Alexander has heard that discipline is a top issue. She doesn’t know of any fights or behavior issues on her child’s bus, but said she’s seen complaints from others.

“I would say just keep trying to make a system that works and doesn't affect these kiddos’ education,” she said. “Give these bus drivers more authority and have consequences for the disrespect.”

Callahan, the district spokesperson, sent an email late Monday saying all students had been dropped off by 7:10 p.m. That's in line with most Mondays and Fridays this school year.

This story has been updated.

Editor's note: James Murphy is married to a current LPM employee.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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