MSAD72 11021

MSAD 72 Superintendent Jay Robinson (right), seated next to MSAD 72 School Board Chairman Jack Jones of Lovell, Maine, said Wednesday that he’s concerned that the district has just enough bus drivers to get students to school and if a few call in sick, it could cause a crisis. (DAYMOND STEER PHOTO)

FRYEBURG, Maine — Jay Robinson, school superintendent for MSAD 72, says that while the district has just enough drivers to cover its school bus routes for now, it’s only a matter of time until a driver shortage could impact the district.

MSAD 72 includes Molly Ockett School in Fryeburg, Maine; New Suncook in Lovell, Maine; and Brownfield Denmark Elementary in Denmark, Maine. Fryeburg Academy has an exclusive contract with MSAD 72 to educate all district students in grades nine-12.

The superintendent is to give an update on the situation Dec. 8.

On Nov. 10, Robinson suggested that the school board start making contingency plans in advance of a possible crisis. One solution he suggested involves later start and dismissal times for pre-K-8 students of 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. every day, not just days the district lacks drivers. Currently, school starts at 8 a.m. for the lower grades. Drop-off times for Fryeburg Academy students are as close to 7:30 a.m. as possible, and classes start at 7:50 a.m. each day.

Robinson said that schools across Maine and the rest of the country are having a hard time recruiting and retaining bus drivers. He said while some districts in Maine are already canceling daily routes, MSAD 72 has avoided having to do so; however, sports trips have had to be canceled for lack of drivers.

“It is a dire thing; it is very hard to educate students when you can’t get them here,” said Robinson.

“So we are sort of at a crisis point where it is not reasonable to expect with only a fleet of drivers who can just cover routes, to expect drivers to be there every day,” Robinson said, adding, “We don’t want to be in a situation where we’re impacting every family in the district by saying, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve reached the point where we don’t have enough drivers.’”

Right now, the district has 15 drivers doing 14 daily runs. The district has other drivers for events but they are unavailable for the daily runs.

Robinson said when drivers have to be out, district officials have to “scramble” by creating double runs, changing pickup and drop-off times, and sending vans to get students.

“If we were ever in a situation where we lost any more than that, we would probably be facing a situation where we have to cancel school,” said Robinson.

A possible solution would be to adjust the schedules for pre-K-8 grade students. This would mean the four or so drivers doing the Fryeburg Academy runs would then have time to pick up the younger students.

They along with seven other drivers could do the daily routes. That would leave four drivers in reserve in case a driver or multiple drivers call out.

Robinson said this idea would “solve the problem,” but he didn’t know how receptive the school board would be to it.

School board members asked questions such as if it would be better to have a later school time for the high school or if perhaps there could be before-school activities for students whose parents need to drop them off before 9 a.m.

Robinson said a later start time for high school students could be disruptive to the students’ after-school activities. He also said a before-school program could be developed if need be.

Robinson said it would be January before he would consider implementing the later start times.

Asked by email what is his next steps would be, Robinson said he would be in touch with Fryeburg Academy’s leadership to see if they would be open to later start times. Parents also will be consulted.

“Having a sense of how many families/students in each school would be impacted will help immensely with the planning,” he said.

He also provided an update on COVID numbers. He said there were 10 COVID cases among students last year, and this year there are already 28. He said the vast majority of virus transmissions occurred out of school where a student’s family member contracted the virus first.

However, “the safety measures are making a difference,” said Robinson of masking and other measures.

The MSAD 72 board meets again Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. 

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