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Pasco’s school bus problem worsens. Families told to expect more delays.

The district changed schedules to deal with a driver shortage. Then, the omicron wave hit.
Illnesses have worsened the Pasco County school district's bus driver shortage, which prompted the School Board to alter bell schedules for the second semester. The district continues to advertise for more bus drivers.
Illnesses have worsened the Pasco County school district's bus driver shortage, which prompted the School Board to alter bell schedules for the second semester. The district continues to advertise for more bus drivers. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]
Published Jan. 10
Updated Jan. 10

The parents of Pasco County school bus riders got an unwelcome message on Monday.

“We are anticipating your student’s bus being very delayed this week,” said the automated phone call.

The problem? A “serious staffing issue” resulting from large numbers of bus drivers calling in sick because of the coronavirus.

The district had 68 drivers and assistants call in sick Monday, compared to between 30 and 40 last week, said district spokesperson Steve Hegarty. “We are concerned yet hopeful for the rest of the week,” he said.

Families had hoped for better after adapting to a mid-year revision of school start and end times because of the bus driver shortage that has plagued Pasco and much of the state.

“It is just crazy,” said Tammie Swartzbeck, a New Port Richey mom who raised questions about the district’s busing situation on Facebook, where dozens of other parents chimed in. “I don’t blame the drivers for being sick. But what was the sense? Why did we do all these changes when we’re still in the same boat?”

Related: Pasco schools brace for ‘big hassle’ when start times change Jan. 4

Hoping to eliminate its problem of buses arriving late to school each day, the district changed all its bell schedules this month. By having four start times instead of three, officials reasoned, the district would be able to get children to campuses on time without needing more bus drivers.

They didn’t count on the omicron variant of the coronavirus interfering with their plan.

“We are doing our best,” Hegarty said. “There are extenuating circumstances.”

Hegarty said the district told parents before the new schedules took effect that buses probably would not run smoothly for a couple of weeks, until drivers became accustomed to their new routes. The new message served to alert families that illness is further affecting student transportation.

“We’re trying to be proactive,” Hegarty said. “We’re just trying to warn people.”

In addition to mentioning late buses, the message also encouraged parents to drive their children to school if possible. If students arrive late because of their buses, it added, “he or she will not be marked tardy and will have the opportunity to eat breakfast.”

Swartzbeck said she is not a fan of masking. But given the circumstances, she suggested that the district might consider requiring masks for bus rides, where everyone is in close quarters, until the latest virus wave subsides.

She and others on Facebook commented that the district should do more to attract bus drivers, and that changing the schedules was not enough.

Hegarty noted that increasing numbers of teachers also have been calling in sick. So far, he said, the situation has not become insurmountable.

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