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Bus Driver Shortage Stymies Peoria Public Schools' Return To Pre-Pandemic Schedule

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The Peoria Public Schools board of education meets on May 24, 2021.

Barring a surge in bus driver applicants between now and August, it appears Peoria Public Schools may be stuck with the shortened three-tier bell schedule for another year.

The three-tier schedule was rolled out when students first returned to in-person learning in March. The district is proposing PPS students attend school for six and a half hours per day on one of three staggered bell schedules, depending on their school.

That's a change from the pre-pandemic two-tier, seven hour day.

District transportation director Josh Collins said the three-tier schedule is what the district can accommodate with its current compliment of 65 drivers.

He said the only other options are making about 1,500 more students ineligible for bus transport to reduce the number of routes; or to have the current drivers make multiple rounds each day to pick up all currently eligible students. But that would see some students getting to school up to two hours late.

"We can't operate that way," Collins said.

The district saw an exodus of bus drivers during the COVID-19 shutdown, and Collins said the difficulty they're facing in hiring replacements is "alarming."

Collins said the district is short about 20 to 25 drivers. But even after contracting with 309 Marketing for a multimedia recruiting campaign, Collins said PPS is still coming up short.

"We got three applicants," Collins said. "Normally, with a push like this in the past, we would have got 20, 25 applicants."

The district expanded the number of minimum hours from six to eight to make the positions more attractive. They've also reached out to First Student three times to contract the routes out, to no avail.

"All three times, they said, no way," said Collins. "I'll quote them. 'Not a chance in hell' is what they told us."

Collins said supervisors and technicians are driving buses to fill staffing gaps right now. He said the district is far from alone in its hiring difficulties.

"I don't think it's us. I think it's just the climate we're in right now," Collins said. "For various reasons, it's just making it really difficult to recruit those numbers."

But staff and parents alike are voicing concerns about the three-tier bell schedule proposals for next year. District administration presented the school board with five options to consider.

Collins said many parents are against proposals which send younger kids home before their older siblings, whom they depend upon for childcare after school. But studies show keeping younger children in school until 4 p.m. could be harmful to their education.

School board member Dr. Anni Reinking said the three-tier model doesn't benefit the students.

"Yes, they're still in school, but thinking about the decreased time that they're getting, if we're really student-focused, where is the student focus? Because the focus isn't getting our students back in the classroom full-day," she said.

But Superintendent Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat said the two-tier model isn't really an option with the current bus driver staffing levels, unless the school board wants "chaos."

"If it's the three-tiered bell schedule, kids are still getting six and a half hours, right? We're just going to have to compromise. We cannot get it all. We cannot get our cake and eat it, too," she said. "We have to compromise and say, it cannot be done at this moment, because after all, we're still in a pandemic."

Jeff Adkins-Dutro, president of the Peoria Federation of Teachers, said the district needs to try harder to make the two-tier schedule happen.

"I'd like you to tell me how a shorter day is in the best interest of our kids. The adults, the administration, has thrown in the towel, and doing what's best for them," he said. "Playing the 'we care for the kids' card in this scenario is foolhardy. They have given up. It's May, and they've given up."

The board didn't come to a decision Monday night on next year's bell schedule. But board president Doug Shaw said a decision must be made soon.

"We need to give the administration a recommendation. We want to come to a consensus," he said.

Thomas Jefferson Primary renamed

With no discussion, the Peoria Public Schools Board of Education voted to rename Thomas Jefferson Primary School for the Reverend C.T. Vivian.

Ernestine Jackson is the education chair of the NAACP Peoria Branch, and a former school board member. The NAACP supported renaming the school after Vivian, a civil rights leader who lived in Peoria.

"If you're going to name a school, it ought to be named after someone with integrity, who treats people correctly and right," Jackson said. "That doesn't get involved with a teenage slave to have children."

The name change is effective July 1.

The board is set to vote the renamings of five other schools linked to figures with controversial histories on race in the coming months.

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