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NTPS is running late

The North Thurston Public School's dwindling driver staff has led to a widespread transportation shortage that has restricted fieldtrips, club activities, and sporting events

By Editor-in-Chief Ahna Rader

"I'm outside in the big yellow bus." Below the east facing window in the Blazer room, a big yellow bus was rumbling on the pavement below. On the bus, Ben Elkins, the North Thurston Public School's Assistant Transportation director extended a hand. "Is this a usual occurrence?" Elkins was asked. He smiled weakly. "Unfortunately yes."

The current North Thurston Public School transportation staff is 85 driver. The district has 90 routes that need to be driven each day. A culmination of COVID-19 large-scale retirement, an more-than-average sick leave has led to the shrinking staff f bus drivers at NTPS and throughout the US.

"Yu take all of that, and it's kinda like the perfect storm," Elkin said. As assistant transportation director the past two years, a daily battle for Elkins ha been addressing the dwindling staff numbers, the transportation staff has flaunted benefits and streamlined the process of receiving a Commercial Driver's License (CDL), but yet the loss continues. "We're still losing drivers. We're going to lose two in the next week that are retiring. That puts us backwards," Elkins said.

Part of the problem is that becoming a bus driver isn't instantaneous. "Drivers aren't just hired and then you put them in the seat, you have to get a CDL. It takes probably 4-5 weeks," Elkins said. 

With a gaping deficit, NTPS transportation has been working towards the number they once had. "[We] used to have a 50-person pool for subs -- we literally have four [now]." Hiring has been on the up thus far, but this shortage could have somber implications if it continues. "It' a huge dilemma, and I hope it doesn't get worse, but let's see what happens. It could et worse."

The transportation shortage hasn't only affected the way we run our schools, but how Timberline student participate in sports. High School athletes have had their seasons completely reshaped by bus availability. 

"It's affected us in a very negative way. We were not able to attend any large invitationals tis year due to a lack of transportation," Kevin Gary, the Timberline cross country coach state. "We were able to get to our league meet up at Fort Steilacoom. That was probably the furthest we've traveled this year. Usually we can go to Leavenworth and Seaside, but all those places were denied by the school district for whatever reason." 

The football team has been affected similarly. Head coach James Jones shared that the transportation has complicated the season for not just is players, but himself an the athletes' parents as well. "The very first game we were supposed to have two buses. We only had one and the bus showed up late. [We] had to take one group and then come back and take another group and then the whole time frame of everything was off," he shared. Both the cross country team and the football team have resorted to transporting themselves to local meets. "I've decided at the home games, like South Sound, we just won't have a bus. It's just easier," Jones said. 

The transportation shortage jeopardizes the credibility of Timberline's athletic program. The shortage is far-reaching, but some sports teams claim to be feeling it more than others. "To be honest, I was really disappointed that we missed the Leavenworth invite and the Marysville invite," says Elijah Rodriguez, a senior on the cross country team. Personally, I feel like the football team gets more priority than the other sports because it's the most popular." 

Renee Kilcup, first-year coach of Girl's Swim and Dive experienced the lack of buses intensely. "We were denied 11 out of 12 buses. They actually came back denied," she said. "There was times I felt that [swim had less of a priority]. But I didn't ask enough questions to find out if that was a feeling or a fact."

This uneven distribution of buses is not necessarily premeditated. Elkins explains that sports trips are not the key part of bus drivers jobs and are thus never guaranteed. "We've been having a huge problem with getting drivers to run field trips. You get off a 10 hour day, and now you gotta go drive to say, Aberdeen. That's a long day." Due to the already extenuating demands on drivers, sports trips are the last priority. 

Aside from strenuous efforts of the transportation team and flexibility between parents and coached, the shortage won't end until massive amounts of bus drivers are hired and fully certified. With this in mind, should we be reimagining the way we participate in sports? Sports programs may opt for virtual meets or strictly local events in lieu of hoping for a bus. The way we play sports may face a permanent transformation due to the lasting effects of the COVID pandemic.