Redmond School District canceled bus routes for more than 140 students Monday after seven bus drivers called in sick.
Parents and others told the The Bulletin they believe the bus drivers called in sick as part of a coordinated walkout in protest of Gov. Kate Brown’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for all K-12 school staff and volunteers. Posts and comments on social media also speculated it was an organized protest.
Sheila Miller, a spokeswoman for the school district, could not confirm whether or not the seven bus drivers were coordinating a walkout, but she called the number of drivers calling in sick on the same day “very unusual.”
“When we have seven call in and say they’re sick, that prevents us from being able to effectively run routes,” Miller said. “If people are calling in sick to try and prove a point, and they might think they’re sticking it to the district or the governor or somebody like that, but the people who suffer are the kids who don’t get to come to school.”
She said six drivers called Sunday night to say they were sick and would not report to work Monday. She said the district worked to reorganize routes and notified families that two routes would be canceled for middle and high school students. The seventh driver called in sick Monday morning, forcing the district to cancel a third route for elementary and secondary students.
The cancellations affected students at Ridgeview High School, Redmond High School, Obsidian Middle School, Elton Gregory Middle School, Hugh Hartman Elementary School and Sage Elementary School.
Miller told The Bulletin on Monday afternoon that the school district expects enough of the bus drivers to return on Tuesday to operate the routes as normal.
The governor announced the vaccine mandate for all K-12 schools in August, which left Central Oregon school districts with concerns over whether it would contribute to an already tight labor market. School staff that do not get fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, or get an approved medical or religious exemption, face losing their jobs.
School districts have had a particularly difficult time hiring bus drivers. Redmond School District and Bend-La Pine Schools, Central Oregon’s largest school districts, have relied on other staff in their transportation departments to drive buses since the start of the school year, filling the gap as many bus driver positions remain vacant. Bus routes have also been combined, resulting in longer rides for students, Miller said.
She said the district is already short 14 bus drivers of what is needed to run its traditional bus routes.
Redmond School District still has a number of people who have not gotten vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19 and have not filed religious or medical exemptions. Miller presumes some of those staffers include bus drivers. She expects the school district will have numbers on how many employees are vaccinated and how many filed for exemptions later this week.
During a Redmond School Board meeting in late August, Matt Kutcher, the bus driver trainer at the school district, warned that any additional driver loss would leave the school district “crippled.”
“Staff loss is directly related to the governor’s executive order requiring mandatory vaccination shots for all K-12 education employees,” Kutcher said during the public comment period. “I’m fully aware of additional staff that will leave our employment if there is no choice in vaccination allowed.
“I know that none of our staff wants to leave. We love our jobs; we love our department; we love our district; we love our boss.”
He called on the board and superintendent to provide alternative options to avoid vaccination other than medical or religious exemptions or do everything possible to see the vaccine mandate rescinded.
During the same school board meeting, the board approved a resolution demanding local control in response to the governor’s mask and vaccination mandates.
Shawn Hartfield, the board’s chairwoman, could not be reached for comment.