Deb Malewski
Contributing Writer

The loss of five bus drivers when students first returned to limited in-person learning will continue to affect the Eaton Rapids Public School bus schedule when students return to four-days-a-week classes starting March 22.
Hiring bus drivers has never been a speedy process. Advertising has been done, but without much luck, said Superintendent Bill DeFrance. To be a school bus driver in Michigan, they must have a Commercial Drivers License (CDL), drug and alcohol testing, a physical examination, a school bus driver certification class, and a criminal background check. So, someone walking in off the street, while appreciated for their effort, probably won’t be able to drive a bus.
The possibility of hiring more new drivers during this school year is slim, it was stated at the March 10 school board meeting, due to the short timing and legal requirements for bus drivers.
There is no requirement that schools must provide transportation for their students by law in Michigan, but DeFrance said they will serve everyone who wants to get on the buses.
Eaton Rapids is not the only school in this situation, many parts of Michigan are in the same situation. Currently, Holt, Okemos, Marshall, and Dean Transportation are also hiring bus drivers.
Driving a school bus is a job that often attracts recently retired older people seeking a part-time job. But these are the same people who are considered the most vulnerable to COVID-19 and many don’t want to be around groups of children or people in general.
With the shortage of bus drivers to drive the usual 13 routes, the system had to be redesigned, explained DeFrance, and cut back to only 8 routes.  Buses will be running fuller, and for longer. The school district is composed of 125 square miles, with a fair number of back roads that tend to be sparsely populated. The district includes the city of Eaton Rapids, three complete townships, and five other partial townships.
The normal goal for a bus route is no more than an hour, DeFrance explained, but with fewer buses running there will be some students on the bus for about an hour and a half. The walking-zone will also be increased.
High school and middle school bus routes will have 41 to 65 students on their bus when full. For elementary school students, it could be 41 to 75 students. That is within legally allowed numbers, DeFrance said.
Masks will be required on the buses, along with the use of hand sanitizer, and seats will be assigned. Social distancing of six feet will not be possible on the buses.