By Linda Dillman
Although Canal Winchester Schools started the new year on a normal school schedule, starting Jan. 10 that all changes as the district deals with a problem plaguing school systems across the country—a shortage of bus drivers.
“This is a conversation we were hoping we would not have to have this year,” said Canal Winchester Schools Superintendent James Sotlar. “Our transportation department, our bus drivers, are operating on a skeleton crew already. We normally have 42 drivers with two permanent substitutes. We’re down to 38 drivers and no substitutes. While it doesn’t sound like a big deal, it absolutely is a big deal when you’re getting kids back and forth to school.”
Due to the decrease in the number of drivers, there were late or delayed routes, which created last minute adjustments for families and students arriving late to school. In addition, several after-school events were cancelled.
Sotlar said the problem will soon be compounded with the loss of two more drivers and potentially another in January. While there are two new drivers in the pipeline, they will not complete their training and certification until mid-March.
“That throws everything we have been doing into chaos and so we have a couple of options,” said Sotlar, “but there are no good options. We can’t continue to operate the same way we’re doing things and be as efficient as we are.”
Options considered by the district included returning to remote learning, canceling bus routes when needed at the last minute, going back to last year’s schedule of half of the students a week or two of remote learning and older students’ remote learning and younger ones in-person learning every day.
Transportation Director Dr. Mike Bruning said administrators proposed—and the Canal Winchester Board of Education approved on Dec. 20—a plan to have the middle school, high school and Winchester Trail Elementary operate on a one-hour early dismissal and Indian Trail Elementary operate on a one hour late start.
The pre-school and kindergarten continue to operate on their present schedule with no changes.
According to the new schedule effective Jan. 10, bus stop times/locations remain the same, but one hour is now subtracted from the current afternoon drop-off time. High school is 7:35 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.; the middle school is 7:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; and Winchester Trail operates from 9 a.m. to 2:35 p.m.
Indian Trail will now start at 9:55 a.m. and dismiss at 3:30 p.m. Morning pick-up is moved ahead an hour—example: an 8:11 a.m. is now 9:11 a.m.
Eastland-Fairfield Career Center students will keep the same hours and no bus changes.
“With the number of children we have riding and not busing in town, we feel we can make this work,” Bruning said. “The reason why we have to split Winchester Trail and Indian Trail is that K-5 is our largest ridership. It is significantly larger that the middle school and high school. We just can’t do it at the same time.”
Bruning felt the schedule changes should help reduce the morning traffic jam in front of school buildings. He said by waiting until Jan. 10 and not starting immediately after the winter break it gives building principals the opportunity to remind students of the upcoming changes.
Board member Kevin Butler said, “Obviously there’s no good option. We’ve been out there recruiting bus drivers. We’ve been proactive. We obviously don’t have the staff. We’re trying to fill in the gaps. I want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to get there.”
Sotlar said, while there is no end date at this time for the changes, a return to normal is dependent on how the driver situation is resolved. He anticipates re-evaluating the issue at the end of February.
The school board will meet on Jan. 10 starting at 6:45 p.m. with their annual organizational meeting followed by the regular meeting at 7 p.m.