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School bus drivers take on new jobs during COVID-19 pandemic

With most schools conducting only virtual learning for the first several weeks, if not months, of the new school year, bus drivers in at least one local school district are picking up new work to stay employed.

Posted: Sep 3, 2020 10:34 AM
Updated: Sep 3, 2020 12:43 PM

ALBANY, Ore. -- At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, work came to a screeching halt for thousands of school bus drivers across Oregon. 

"I would've never thought in my lifetime I would ever see anything like this," said Cindy Williams, a school bus driver for special needs students for Greater Albany Public Schools (GAPS). "It's not easy to know day to day what your life is going to be like."

Helen Jacobs is a driver trainer for GAPS and the president of their local classified employees union. 

"We're going to stay strong together, work together, and support each other. I think that's one of the biggest things," Jacobs said.

Students at GAPS are learning virtually until at least mid-October. In the meantime, the district's bus drivers are taking on other duties to stay employed -- jobs like tutoring students or reading to them, checking in with students' families, custodial work, grounds keeping, and transporting food. 

At the same time, GAPS Transportation Supervisor Russell Buttram is helping to plan ahead for a number of scenarios. 

"You have to have a plan to take all the kids to school like you would in a normal year. You have to have a plan to support different groups of kids in the cohorting model that we have for the hybrid. And you also have to have a plan, as we're doing for the start of the school year, to be shut down completely and how you're going to continue to employ people. It triples the amount of planning that you have to do," Buttram said. 

Across Oregon, new data shows just how many school bus drivers are hurting. 

"If we look at the unemployment insurance data, about 5,000 were collecting unemployment insurance benefits in the sector that includes bus drivers, and that's transportation and warehousing. So, it's likely that a good portion of those 5,000 are school bus drivers," said Oregon Employment Department Regional Economist Brian Rooney, who covers Lane and Douglas Counties. 

"5,000 roughly in the transportation sector of school districts around the state, that's a huge number," responded Anchor Bryan Anderson.

"Right," said Rooney, "There are lot of school bus drivers around the state. And, yeah, right now their short-term future is uncertain in a lot of cases."

But what is for certain is that their dedication to their students hasn't diminished. 

"(School bus drivers) understand that this has to be flexible because that's what kids need right now," Buttram said. 

"We're here and we're ready for you," said Jacobs. 

"I will be there as soon as I can. As soon as school opens, I'll be there," added Williams. 

To learn about the state's guidance for reopening schools, click here

Below are links to the education service districts covering Western Oregon's counties: 

For more on SchoolWatch, including KEZI 9 News coverage and links to school districts' plans, click here.

Full interview with Buttram, part one:

Full interview with Buttram, part two:

Full interview with Rooney:

Full interview with GAPS bus drivers, part one:

Full interview with GAPS bus drivers, part two:

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