Driving School to the Students
When her bus pulls up to the curb in University Place, students don’t get on this year. This fall Sherri Ehrenheim opens the door and hands out vital supplies to the students – meals, tech devices, homework packets. Instead of bringing students to school, Sherri is bringing the school to the students.
“I like being out in the community delivering the meals,” Sherri noted. “I really enjoy driving to the students and interacting with them every day, supporting them and being a constant in these tough times.”
Sherri has been a University Place bus driver for five years. She’s accustomed to picking up students from elementary, middle, and high school and getting them safely to and from school buildings. This year, though, she’s loading up her bus with nutritious meals and taking them to designated stops.
“Getting meals is a thing families can do together,” said Sherri. “Many families use walking to my bus to get their lunches as a break or an activity, and I think it’s important they have the opportunity to do that.”
Since many schools went to a remote model, districts have been finding innovative ways to use their existing transportation infrastructure, including new job assignments to make sure students get the supports they need. WEA, school districts and other labor partners advocated to make sure these vital services for students could be provided during the pandemic. Under an order from Governor Inslee, school districts can use their current transportation funds to transport students to their childcare centers or to deliver nutritious meals, learning packets and internet connectivity. Sherri and her colleagues are making sure each student and family can have equitable access to their education.
“This year I’m on one of my regular bus stops so I can see some of my kids from my route last year,” Sherri added. “It’s good to see that they’re doing well. I think some families are struggling with the online school; many parents are waiting for something close to normal to return.”
Keeping bus drivers out in the community has an additional benefit for the district: maintaining its hard-to-hire driver workforce. Drivers with CDLs are in short supply right now and furloughs or layoffs could result in drivers taking jobs elsewhere. If that had happened, it would mean significant delays in getting students back in classrooms once school returns to some in-person learning. One expert estimated that hiring and training a school bus driver can take more than two months.
“Being that our district is small, they’re doing everything they can to make sure we can stay employed,” Sherri commented. “All of us will be needed to drive students again.”
In the meantime, Sherri is out there each weekday to make sure none of her students go hungry, making rounds twice to each stop so families can come see her when they’re able.
“All of the bus drivers are looking forward to the day that we can get back to driving our students to school,” she said. “But right now families are happy we’re out there, providing the meals.”