Maine's bus driver shortage is upending high school sports

·4 min read

Oct. 11—The problematic shortage of bus drivers since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic doesn't stop at the end of the school day.

The lack of bus drivers to transport middle and high school teams to road contests this fall has required athletic administrators around the state to perform an almost daily juggling act to address a bevy of scheduling challenges that also include the coronavirus, weather and a lack of game officials.

"I've been doing this now for almost 40 years," said Randy Harris, the athletic administrator, transportation director and three-sport varsity coach at Lee Academy. "This is by far the most changes and phone calls I've had to make as far as the schedule goes."

Many of those changes require patience, with teams having to delay their games until the afternoon bus runs taking students home from school are completed. Bus drivers are then free to take teams to their games.

Sometimes a school with numerous road games on the same day — based on a fall sports schedule crafted before COVID-19's delta variant brought on a resurgence of coronavirus cases — will force an athletic administrator to swap home games with the opponent or otherwise spread out the road games among different dates because there aren't enough available bus drivers to ensure all the games are played as originally scheduled.

At other times, there are postponements.

The Houlton High School football team was scheduled to play its first game of the fall at Ellsworth on Friday, Sept. 3, but had to postpone it until the next day because the team didn't have a bus driver.

"There's been certain days when I've felt like I've switched the start time for a game three different times," Houlton Middle-High School athletic administrator and head football coach Jon Solomon said. "There are times when parents get frustrated about all the changes but then they realize that we're just doing this so the kids can get their games in."

Brewer High School asked its coaches in August to consider getting licensed to drive team buses to help address the shortage.

Some schools are using smaller passenger vans that coaches or others can use to transport teams to games with their standard Class C license.

"For smaller groups like golf or cheer, some of those groups will take a van and the coach will drive," Belfast Area High School athletic administrator Matt Battani said.

Belfast also has an assistant football coach, Jamie Potvin, who has a commercial driver's license and he's able to drive that team to its road football games.

"We haven't really had an issue with needing to change or adjust sports because of the lack of drivers," Battani said. "We've got one coach that's driving a full-sized bus on his [commercial driver's license], we've got a few coaches driving the vans and then our transportation department is getting it done so we're in pretty good shape."

Lee Academy has not had a bus driver available for road games during the week because the driver normally assigned to that task has been needed for regular after-school runs that don't conclude until 4 p.m.

The school has two 15-person vans available that also are used to transport the school's dormitory students to appointments and activities.

For one recent boys soccer trip, Lee used both vans and a coach's SUV to transport the 23 players to the game.

"It's been interesting to say the least, but everybody's in the same situation," said Harris, who hopes to have a bus driver available for the Pandas' weekday road games beginning next week.

"We've had postponements where it's been a beautiful day and someone's called up and said, 'Randy, I just don't have a bus driver today,' so we try to move it to the next day or reschedule it when we can."

At Houlton, the high school golf team travels to matches in a van driven by the coach, and Solomon added that he has the option with other fall sports of delaying game starts because of the availability of lights at the Shiretowners' competition fields.

"We've moved some junior high games to the evening or pushed them back an hour so we could get buses out after they did their afternoon routes," he said. "And with soccer games, we could move them to the night if we needed to."

Camden Hills of Rockport athletic administrator Jeff Hart doesn't necessarily expect the bus driver shortage to abate overnight even if COVID-19 is contained, but said the growing familiarity with the issue is leading to the growth of routines to settle scheduling dilemmas.

"The shortage is still definitely a big factor, but we're figuring it out and doing the best we can with it," Hart said. "It's not an easy thing, though, and I don't know if it will ever be the way we remember it was when you made the schedules, hired your buses and drivers and just put it together."

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