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Lewiston superintendent, admin staff transport kids amid bus driver shortage

Superintendent Jake Langlais was one of several administrative staff transporting kids to school due to a lack of bus drivers.

LEWISTON, Maine — School district staff in Maine are getting creative to help kids get to class amid a lack of bus drivers.

Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais, and other administrative staff, including Assistant Superintendent Karen Paquette, drove district minivans with students to a special needs school in Westbrook several times in the first weeks of school due to not having enough bus drivers.

"We have no other ride for them," Langlais said. 

Before the pandemic, the district had not only a full roster of bus drivers but even about seven to nine fill-in drivers for when drivers would call out for medical or personal issues. But the number of drivers has dwindled since the pandemic began. The district now has zero substitutes. 

Add the lack of drivers to COVID quarantines, and the district had to cancel bus routes on a daily basis and is doing so again this school year.

"There's always someone that needs — 'I have a doctor's appointment, or I have a wedding, or I have — I had a medical event. Life happens. So you have drivers that need to be out, so right now we have zero substitutes, and that's what we saw last year," Langlais said.

Langlais added staff members have tried just about everything like combining routes or even monitoring radios at the bus hub so those hub office staff could drive buses.

He said this year administrators are considering rotating which routes will not run each week to give students equal access to transportation.

"Those kids are missing school. They're not getting those moments. Their families are trying to figure it out, and when you have that level of need on top of everything else. It's not okay. We have to get those kids to school," Langlais said.

That led him and his staff to step up.

"We're all chipping in where we can," Langlais said. "These kids wouldn't be able to come to school this whole week, so this is why we're doing what we're doing. It's important that they're at their first week of school," he said. 

Other bus lines that districts contract with are feeling the same pinch.

Mike Cyr with Cyr Bus Lines in Old Town said the company hired and trained many drivers this summer but still needs to use managers and mechanics to drive buses for after-school activities. He said they increased pay and offer a $600 sign-on bonus for anyone who stays through Christmas.

"We're struggling, Cyr said. "We still have managers and mechanics driving buses to afterschool activities."

NEWS CENTER Maine also asked the Department of Education for comment and has not received a response.

On Tuesday, a Brunswick bus drove to Edward Little in Auburn to bring the opposing field hockey team back to Brunswick for a game.

At Hudson Bus Lines, which contracts with the district, people are coming out of retirement, covering extra school programs, and doubling runs to pick up more kids.

"And that's not a small task. It's a big ask," Langlais said.

A big ask, with a big reward.

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