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New superintendent drives bus after district struggles to hire driver during COVID-19

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Ouray School District Superintendent Tod Lokey
Ouray County Plaindealer

Superintendent Tod Lokey brought a short yellow school bus to a stop on Whispering Pines Road just after 8 a.m., then checked his watch.

“Right on time,” he said. He waved to two students waiting across the street, then hopped off the bus, armed with a forehead thermometer in one hand and hand sanitizer in the other. Before the pair could board, he took their temperatures, dispensed sanitizer on their outstretched palms and pointed to the last row of the bus, where he instructed them to sit down and buckle up.

The new leader of Ouray School District R-1 expected that in a small district, he’d likely be taking on tasks beyond those of a typical superintendent. And that’s not something he minded – since he believes no job is too small and he needs to understand how the school works. The district hasn’t been able to hire a bus driver, so for now, he and Athletic Director Bernie Pearce are each driving small, 14-passenger buses every morning and afternoon.

To drive a regular route, rather than just field trips or extracurricular activities, they needed to pass a test and have a medical examination mandated by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Lokey set off just before 8 a.m. Tuesday, after completing the mandatory checks and walk-through of the bus. He opened each window a few inches to allow more airflow in the vehicle, though it was less than 50 degrees outside. “We call it the COVID chill,” he said as he slid each window down.

In addition to his checklist, which he meticulously followed, he also carried on his clipboard a hand-drawn map outlining the route, made for him by administrative assistant Paige Sackman.

As he turned from Seventh Avenue to Main Street, a tour heading out from Colorado West Jeeps honked and waved; Lokey responded in kind.

Unlike some districts, Ouray’s two minibuses aren’t equipped with radios, because their routes never take them outside of cell signal range and because in a normal school year, only one bus would be running, eliminating the need for radios to communicate between drivers.

If something happened, Lokey would call the school, he said, then paused for a beat. “I guess I’d call myself, right?” he joked.

The students he picked up in the next 20 minutes showed almost no reaction when the district’s top administrator stepped off the bus to greet them and administer the new safety protocols.

“I’m Mr. Lokey, the new principal and superintendent,” he said to two new students. Their response was a surprised but quiet “Oh!” as they wrestled with the seat belts on the bus, before putting in headphones and looking at their phones.

“The suspension’s a little stiff back there,” he warned before crossing a speed bump, as the back of the bus bounced.

He stopped to pick up an elementary student on Oak Street, as her grandmother stood in the front yard and encouraged her to board the bus. “I’m the superintendent, and I’m here to

give you a ride,” he told her before taking her temperature.

He’s expecting to have 7 students on each of the two routes, which is the maximum the small buses can fit with students sitting separately to maintain spacing. He’s had fewer students on the first few days of school, and some families who relied on the bus in the past opted out this year due to COVID concerns, providing their own transportation instead.

The driver position is part-time, but Lokey is hoping to find someone willing to take on the job as well as a part-time custodian job. The combined position, which would include the morning and afternoon bus routes and mid-day cleaning on the campus, would be a full-time job with benefits, he said. Bus drivers are typically paid with district funds, while the custodian’s salary will come from federal coronavirus relief money, because the position was created to increase sanitation on campus during the pandemic.

At 8:24 a.m., precisely on time, Lokey pulled up to the corner outside the school and opened the door, letting his handful of passengers exit. He parked the bus on Fourth Street, and hopped off, clipboard still in hand as he headed to the building for a morning assembly, laptop distribution, and day of school.

Liz Teitz is a Report for America corps member placed with the Ouray County Plaindealer. To support her work with a tax-deductible donation, email erin@ouraynews.com

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