RUSSELL, Pa. – While much of the COVID discussion through the first month of the school year has been centered around masks and quarantines, the pandemic is making its presence felt beyond the classroom.
During committee meetings Monday night, Warren County School District Superintendent Amy Stewart explained the district is also facing issues in two key areas, commodities and bus drivers.
The pandemic has negatively impacted supply chains across the country, especially in the food industry, and the WCSD is no exception.
“We’re having a challenge right now getting in chicken and breads and breakfast foods, and our commodities which is the free foods that we get from the government,” WCSD Director of Business Services Jim Grosch said. “And we’ve only been able to get about 20 to 25 percent of what we’ve asked for this year.”
Not only has the district not received the quantities it has requested, but the items they are receiving don’t necessarily line up with students’ tastes.
“We usually ask for items like fruits and chicken and pork, and this year we’ve gotten tuna and raisins, and that’s, that’s a hard sell to kids,” Grosch said.
Grosch added the district will be making a change so that district food menus, usually available four weeks in advance, will be available two weeks in advance.
“We just don’t know what we’re going to get,” Grosch said.
As with mitigation efforts, contact tracing and other pandemic-related issues, it’s another item staff and administrators are adding to their tasks.
“These are just things that are becoming more difficult and we’re spending time on them when, before I don’t think Jim and I ever had a conversation about pizza crust ever in our time working together,” Stewart said. “It’s just not something that we usually spend our time on but that’s what we’re spending time on.”
Pennsylvania is one of a number of states facing a bus driver shortage. The shortage, which was a looming problem before the pandemic, has only been exacerbated by COVID.
“We talk about planning for what if we’re short 10 bus drivers,” Stewart said. “We’re going to have to make choices about where we have kids and where we don’t have kids.”
The problem has become so severe that a number of districts are being forced to make changes or take drastic action.
The Philadelphia School District has reached out to both the National Guard and Amazon to help fill the gaps, according to a report from the Philadelphia Inquirer. That’s in addition to paying families $300 per month to transport their children to school themselves instead of using district transportation.
Regionally, Penncrest School District (Cambridge Springs, Maplewood and Saegertown schools) implemented a two-hour delay schedule to be utilized if they don’t have enough drivers on a given day.
Stewart said trying to adopt a similar schedule within the WCSD would be difficult based on the size of the district.
The Intermediate Units and various state officials, including Rep. Glenn Thompson, have reached out to districts to see what suggestions district leaders might have to solve some of these issues.
Bus drivers carry a Commerical Driver’s License with a special passenger endorsement. Stewart said one of the ideas sent back to state officials was to offer a waiver so those CDL drivers without the passenger endorsement could be called on to alleviate the shortage.
“We were also asked for ideas to send back to the governor on what we could ask for,” Stewart said. “And waivers on that CDL special licensing was one of the things that we put on the list.”