ESSEX JUNCTION — Essex High School is losing its school bus service at the start of the school year and students are being asked to utilize public transportation to get themselves to school.
According to administrative leaders at the Essex Westford School District — which serves 4,500 pre-K through 12 students in Essex Town, Essex Junction and Westford — a driver shortage has caused the district to become understaffed for its planned routes.
While administrators pledge to resume bus service as drivers become available, Essex High School parents are scrambling to find ways to get their kids to school, which starts up Aug. 29.
Finding transportation may be especially difficult for parents in rural areas, and for kids who cannot bike or walk safely on busy roads.
“The Essex Westford School Board is extremely disappointed that the school district’s efforts to secure transportation for our students have failed on several fronts,” Essex Westford District Board Chair Martha Heath told True North by email.
“We are sorry that this is happening so close to the beginning of the school year, thus creating challenges for families. We support the plan to resume and expand transportation as more bus drivers become available,” she said.
Beth Cobb, the Essex Westford superintendent, confirmed that the district has become “short on bus drivers.”
Busing will continue to be available for Essex Elementary, Founders Memorial, Essex Middle School, and Westford, as well as transportation related to Special Education, an Aug. 15 statement from the district says.
Once drivers are hired, service will be restored to students in stages based on factors including travel distance, road conditions, pedestrian and public transport infrastructure, and student age.
A labor shortage isn’t unique to the Essex area. On Friday, the Vermont Department of Labor reported that the state unemployment rate is a record low of 2.8 percent. While generally good news, a low unemployment rate means employers may face difficulties in finding workers.
Patricia Crocker, a parent of a sophomore student Essex High School, learned the bad news while on vacation this past week.
“So, I’m here on vacation, and I go on Facebook and see somebody posted in Essex, Vermont Facebook page that there are no school buses for the town high school students,” she said. “I’m like, ‘What? School is starting in two weeks!”
Crocker says other parents were in the dark about the lack of bus service and now are scrambling to find a transportation plan. While she accepts the district’s explanation, Crocker said she wonders if the Act 46 merger, completed in 2017, is contributing to the problem.
“I believe they are short on drivers, but why is it that before the merger we had buses with no problem … and my [older] son went through the whole Essex Town schools from kindergarten up through high school with no problem?” she said.
Parents who live off Route 128, a busy state road, need to be especially concerned, according to Crocker: “There have been a lot of deaths from people walking and biking on that road … because there’s this very dangerous curve near Weed Road.”
To help remedy the situation, Essex High School has contracted with Green Mountain Transit. However, the service will vary for parents based on bus stop locations, and because it operates on a first-come-first-serve basis.
“It’s a nightmare in the junction during the school year,” Crocker said. “Traffic is very congested because there are a lot of parents driving their kids to school and dropping them off, but now it’s even worse because there’s a smaller window of time for drop off.”
Parents of students attending other district schools can view their scheduled bus routes on the EWSD transportation page.
For parents of Essex High students, administrators are holding a transportation information session at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21, in the Essex High School cafeteria. The meeting is open to the public.