SEATTLE — The union representing Seattle school bus drivers is raising transportation concerns about the district’s plan to resume in-person learning for students.
Starting Monday, Seattle Public Schools brought grades K-5 back to in-person learning for half-days, four days a week in AM/PM cohorts. On April 19, grades 6-12 are eligible for two half-days of in-person instruction a week, if families opt-in.
But district officials have said limitations on school buses means SPS will only provide transportation to those legally entitled to it, including students with disabilities, individual education programs (IEPs), and those experiencing homelessness.
Now, Teamster’s Local 174, which represents the district's contracted bus drivers, says the intersection of various half-day segments will pose an issue to further expand bus options. The union says the districts planned 45- to 60-minute transition times and bell schedules through the day do not allow one driver and bus to drop off departing students and return to the afternoon group.
“There needs to be two hours in between bell schedules so that they can accommodate taking everyone to and from school,” said Local 174 director of communications Jamie Fleming.
Fleming said because of that time issue, morning and afternoon shifts would be split among two drivers, putting both in part-time work situations that would not be financially sustainable. They believe that would work out to just 16-hour weeks, though that math was based on the original release that incorrectly generalized that students at large were returning for four days of in-person instruction.
Still, the transition timing as outlined does exist in district documentation.
“Most people couldn't afford to take that job, even if they wanted to,” Fleming said.
The district is admittedly already facing a bus shortage because many out-of-work drivers have moved on, Fleming said.
In March, SPS said it had only half the drivers needed to return to pre-pandemic levels. In that same announcement to parents, SPS said the school board did make changes to bell schedules to increase bus access but admitted it was not enough to help students gain access to in-person offerings.
Fleming worries the lack of bus access will present an equity issue for families that can’t transport students because of work or other parental obligations but want to return to in-person classes.
“Those students are sort of going to be left behind,” Fleming said. “Yeah, I think the district is sort of counting on the parents to pick up the slack, which is not a good solution. Parents are tired of picking up the slack."
When asked about the Local 174 claims Thursday, a district spokesperson declined an interview in detail about schedules and the union proposal, but said SPS is “working to meet our transportation obligations and we continue to work to increase yellow bus transportation and accommodate as many students as possible.”
When reached for comment, First Student did not address questions about the schedule issue, writing: "First Student is meeting the service level of the current schedule, but there is always a need for additional drivers. As expected, with the delay of in-person learning, drivers faced an uncertain future, and without payment, they found new jobs that provided immediate and consistent work."