STILLWATER, Minn. — It was a still morning when we visited Stillwater, Minnesota, a place named for calm.
A few miles from downtown, Jorlene Leslie was calm too. She had no choice. Calmness was necessary to combat what was coming.
“Some days are great days," Leslie said. “Other days, it’s like, I just want to go home and have a meltdown.”
On Labor Day weekend, Leslie and parents across Stillwater learned the district wouldn’t have enough buses to pick up every child. Specifically, the company it hires for bus services couldn’t find enough drivers.
“You see buses that are this close, and then I live not even two minutes away," Leslie said.
Leslie leaned on foundations until the COVID-19 pandemic upended them. She had a job with one of Minnesota’s largest companies and became one of the thousands they’ve laid off since 2020. She moved to a steady school district that, right now, can’t provide a basic service. She’s a single mom raising four kids.
“I do everything myself," Leslie said. "I drive my kids to and from school. I pick them up, sports, all of that, and pay all their expenses myself. And I work, when I can. It’s just messy. Everything is messy.”
The bus driver shortage has stretched across Minnesota, from Stillwater all the way to Minneapolis. It’s affected school districts nationwide. But it’s far from the only challenge forcing parents to stretch, in a school year most had hoped would bring a return to normal.
Some districts can’t find teachers. Others can’t find paraprofessionals. Others can’t fill their lunch menus, even as the number of students needing free meals grows.
“The reality is there’s no evidence that we will ever get back to the way it was," said Dr. Lewis Zeidner, a psychologist for M Health Farview. “They often say it takes a village to raise children. Well, our villages have shrunk. We’re more isolated than we were. We’re less able to engage in our community.”
That isolation only amplifies the damage. A study by McKinsey found the 2020-2021 school year left students, on average, five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. More than 35% of parents said they were very concerned about their children’s mental health.
Leslie is among them.
“Usually, I’ll get a text from my daughter, like, ‘How are you doing?’" she said. "And sometimes she wants to get picked up from school. That has happened a few times because she doesn’t want to be at school.”
In early September, Stillwater Area Public Schools sued its bus company, alleging a breach of contract. In early November, the district redrew bus routes to pick up more students but took away the option for parents of early drop-off. There’s no true normal. There’s no stillness in Stillwater.
“I can see it all over my kids’ faces when they walk in," Leslie said. "They’re stressed. They don’t want to go to school. And no child should feel like that.”