CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — School districts have been juggling multiple impacts due to COVID-19 for a year. From virtual learning and the stoppage of sports, to a return to in-person classes and alternate scheduling schools have found ingenious ways to keep quality programming going.
Instructors create new types of lessons, food service staff produces breakfasts and lunches for delivery, and custodial staff work overtime cleaning everything in sight again and again. But what happens when the pandemic hits a school district’s transportation department; one already strapped for drivers?
That was the problem faced by North Colonie School District Superintendent Joseph Corr last month when he found himself down three drivers.
With the real chance he would have to inform parents that the district was returning to remote learning Corr began reaching out to other school districts for help. He reached out to 11 in all.
For a variety of reasons, 10 of them replied that, unfortunately, they couldn’t offer any help at the time. The one that did was the Shenendehowa School District.
Shen and North Colonie (Shaker) are fierce rivals on the athletic field but deep down there is an emotional bond between the two schools. That bond was formed in 2012 with the tragic deaths of Shen students Deanna Rivers and Christopher Stewart. Stewart was dating a Shaker High School student who survived the crash. The two school communities went through the tragedy together.
When Shen Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson got Corr’s call he said he would figure out a way to help. Putting down the phone Robinson quickly reached out to Shen’s Director of Transportation Alfred Karam. Karam in turn reached out to his counterpart in the North Colonie School District.
Karam found out North Colonie was short three bus drivers for Feb. 10, Feb. 11, and Feb. 12. He asked his drivers if there were any volunteers to handle the North Colonie routes and quickly had a handful from which to choose.
“They asked for two or three drivers and we wound up sending three over there,” Karam said. “Even though we’re all kind of short on drivers we had put a plan together for our department to deal with staff being out because of COVID and we felt comfortable enough with our plan that we could let our drivers go down there and help for a couple of days.”
Karam said his department had the plan in place before students returned in the fall. He wanted to see how things looked with 20 people absent, 30 people absent, all the way up to 50 people absent.
“Fortunately for us, we had our plan in place,” he said. “We know where our comfort zone is. I asked my team to look for solutions. I said, don’t tell me we’re short because I know we’re short, just look for solutions, and to their credit they did and we were able to help North Colonie out.”
The Shen drivers drove North Colonie School District buses and used North Colonie outlines for the routes.
“My colleague down there put two bus attendants or aides who knew the routes with two of our drivers and my other driver knows North Colonie real well so he could read their outline and figure out where the stops were,” Karam said.
Officials with North Colonie said the buses driven by the Shen drivers had elementary, middle school, high school, and non-public school students as their passengers.
In a letter of thanks to Robinson and the Shen School District written a week after the loan, Corr said realizing that he might have to contact parents and move students back to remote learning was one of the lowest moments he had personally experienced during the pandemic.
“As we sat late in the day trying to figure out a way to transport at least some of our youngest learners to school, the prospects of assembling the needed staff to do so seemed bleak,” he wrote. ”When we reached out around the region you and Transportation Director Karam researched, stepped forward, and approved the plan of borrowing drivers from Shenendehowa to help us finish out the week. It was both a blessing and a solution to the problem. It is the absolute fact that we could not have finished the week without this support.”
Corr went on to note that the two school communities have a history of working together “in good times, difficult times, and times of need”. That partnership, he said, allowed the North Colonie School District to finish out the school week with their students learning in-person.
In speaking to the Board of Education last week about the loan Robinson referenced words he has stood by for a year.
“People are coming together and doing things they never thought possible and doing those things well. We’ve said from the beginning we’re going to do things for the first time with the goal of doing those things well for the first time,” he said. “This speaks to the spirit and will of people to overcome things.”