One of the worst flu outbreaks in recent years is affecting Wichita school buses, officials say, as drivers call in sick in record numbers and the district scrambles to cover routes.
The outbreak, combined with a continued shortage of bus drivers and substitutes, could mean delays, missed pickups, late drop-offs and other issues for students and families.
“I’ve certainly never seen call-offs this high,” said Jen Biddinger, spokeswoman for First Student, the Cincinnati-based private company that provides bus service for Wichita schools.
Since last week, about 10 percent of Wichita drivers – four times the usual number – have called in sick each day, Biddinger said.
That means the state’s largest district is scrambling to cover dozens of routes. More than 16,000 Wichita students ride buses to and from school.
If the company can’t find a substitute driver, licensed employees from other district departments – dispatch, safety services and elsewhere – are tapped to drive. Sometimes the district combines two routes into one, which means more crowded buses, longer rides and later arrivals for students.
The outbreak “has certainly had a big impact on our operation,” said Fabian Armendariz, director of transportation for the Wichita district.
Biddinger said First Student is encouraging drivers who have flu-like symptoms to stay home to prevent the virus from spreading more widely.
“This has been a particularly rough year, not just for us but for everyone dealing with this” flu outbreak, she said.
“We’re reminding our team about the importance of washing their hands frequently. We also have hand sanitizer in our dispatch area so drivers have access to it before and after their routes.”
The company also continues to recruit drivers and substitutes. A job fair earlier this week attracted about a dozen potential employees, Biddinger said.
People interested in working for First Student may visit apply.firstgroupcareers.com, she said. The starting wage for a Wichita school bus driver is $14.20 an hour.
Susan Arensman, spokeswoman for the Wichita district, said attendance is down at several schools as more students are calling in sick. So far there’s no talk of canceling class as a precautionary measure, however.
“There are pockets, at certain schools or grade levels, where it’s worse,” Arensman said. “But schools are dealing with it the way they normally do this time of year, when there’s lots of stuff going around.”