They installed hand sanitizer dispensers on the buses. They created seating charts to keep children apart. They reconfigured bus routes and altered school schedules to ensure they had the time and space needed to transport every child.
None of it matters if the bus driver's seat is empty.
The pandemic is exacerbating a nationwide shortage of bus drivers that experts say existed long before the health crisis.
More: Groveport Madison schools moving back to online classes due to COVID outbreak
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Many drivers, especially those who are older and more at-risk for health complications, aren't working so they can avoid exposure to the virus. Even during a normal year, qualified drivers are often lured away by jobs in the private sector that pay better and offer more consistent hours, local officials said.
'We have transportation supervisors and office staff, and in some districts, even mechanics, helping to cover routes — myself included,' said Randy Snyder, president of the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation. Snyder is also the supervisor for the Westerville school district's transportation department.
National surveys before the pandemic estimated about 20% of jobs industrywide are unfilled, Snyder said.
The Columbus school district, for example, had 765 active bus drivers last school year, but this school year, has just 606, spokesman Scott Wortman said.
'It's not an urban issue. It's not a small township issue,' Snyder said. 'It's an industry issue and it's definitely affecting everyone.'
Last week, students in the Groveport Madison school district didn't have bus rides the entire week due to a COVID-19 outbreak among transportation employees. As of Friday, 15 employees were infected and many others were forced to quarantine for 14 days due to possible exposure, reducing a staff of nearly 100 people by about a third.
Originally, district officials planned to continue offering in-person classes twice a week, with parents bringing their children to school if possible. But due to staffing shortages elsewhere in the district, all classes will go online starting Wednesday.
On Wednesday, the Licking Heights district also moved all its classes online due to staffing shortages, with its transportation department greatly impacted.
More: COVID in Ohio: Licking Heights High School classes moving online for 2 days
The Bellefontaine district, about 60 miles northwest of Columbus, suspended nine of its 12 bus routes in early October because of the virus but eventually found enough substitutes to operate most of them.
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It's not enough just to find someone who's willing to drive a bus, officials said.
School bus drivers must hold a commercial driver's license, pass background checks and complete any necessary training with their district, a process that often can take weeks, explained Monte Detterman, the South-Western school district's director of business services.
'Most people don't understand how much goes into getting them certified,' Detterman said.© Fred Squillante/Columbus Dispatch The Groveport Madison school district's bus fleet is parked outside the bus garage. After offering some in-person classes for roughly a month, the district announced that it would be moving all classes back online due to a COVID-19 outbreak among its employees, including many in the transportation department.
Steve Simmons, president of the New York-based National Association for Pupil Transportation, said he doubts many districts could sustain busing for very long if all students were in buildings five days a week, given the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To reduce the potential spread of the virus, many districts are only allowing one student per seat, lessening bus capacity. State officials don't require any specific distancing protocols.
'Some school districts have asked their transportation supervisors, 'If we decided to go back to school 100% next week, what would you do?' They said, 'Close,' said Simmons, who was the Columbus City Schools transportation director for more than a decade. 'There's just not enough people left. We're going to have to ease back into this thing.'
In a 2016 survey conducted by the national association, 56% of respondents indicated their driver shortage is 'getting much worse.' More than half of that 56% said the situation is “severe” or “desperate” for their school district or transportation company.
Of surveyed bus drivers, 88% said pay was a major factor in recruitment and retention, while 62% cited the hours that work is available.
The median pay for school bus drivers, was about $33,000 annually last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the Groveport Madison district, a week without buses put a strain on many parents, including 50-year-old Maria Swonger. Before the district shifted classes online, she was prepared to enroll her 12-year-old son, Kyle, in its online academy, a 100% virtual learning platform, for the rest of the school year.
By 5 a.m., Swonger leaves for her job at the nearby Kroger fuel center. Her husband, a local truck driver, leaves an hour later.
The Madison Township family relied on the bus picking up Kyle, a sixth-grader, at 7:25 a.m. to get him to Middle School North for his two days of in-person learning on Thursdays and Fridays. Since they couldn't drive him to school so early last week, they dropped him off with a babysitter.
'We don't know from one day to the next what brick is going to fall,' Swonger said.
The situation has also proven challenging for Groveport Madison High School students attending Eastland-Fairfield Career Center's campus near Lancaster, which offers students in-person classes five days a week, every other week.
Risa Thornton, 52, said driving her daughter to class would require a nearly hour-long round trip each morning and afternoon, which isn't realistic when she's working.
Instead, 16-year-old Hallie, who is studying to become a veterinary assistant, has to learn from home.
'She's not being penalized for not being there, but she's missing out on clinical time,' Thornton said.
The district hopes to resume services for career center students as soon as possible, spokesman Jeff Warner said Tuesday.
More: COVID in Columbus-area schools: What's the latest on reopening plans?
Another factor some say is complicating busing: In Ohio, public districts are not only required to bus their own students in grades K-8, but also offer busing to students in those grades who live within their boundaries but are attending private or charter schools.
That's why Columbus City Schools, the state's largest district with just under 50,000 students, is already busing about 13,000 students to schools every day, even though its own students are still learning online.
Due to the number of students bused every day, transportation is a major factor of plans for how and when students return for 'blended learning,' with classes in-person twice weekly, said Wortman, the district's spokesman. For now, they'll stay online through at least mid-January.
About 29,000 district students rode the bus in the 2019-20 school year, he said.
'We are currently working to determine how many routes will be needed and what those routes will entail,' Wortman said.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: COVID worsens bus driver shortages nationwide, in many Ohio schools