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Storytellers: Colorado student kayaks to school amid bus driver shortage

When Josh Smith realized that seats on the bus were scarce because of fewer drivers, he decided to find a new way to get to class.

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — When classes began for the fall semester, Josh Smith knew there was a problem with the number of bus drivers, but he didn't know that caused the district to create a waitlist for seats.

"When I began school, it was kinda hard every day. I'd have to text or call my mom and say like, 'Should I ride the bus today? Will they allow me to ride the bus?'" Josh said.

He is a seventh grade student at Summit Middle School in Frisco. Like many school districts around Colorado, Summit County Schools have a problem finding enough bus drivers.

"Those people apparently just aren't in the community to apply for jobs," Roy Crawford, Summit County School District Superintendent, said. 

Josh's father, Jason Smith, said his son then came up with an intriguing idea.

"One night around dinner, Josh just said hey dad would you mind if I kayaked to school?" Jason Smith said. "Some kids if they say that, you just kind of laugh it off and say yeah, sure, no problem. But, if I knew if he asked it, he was probably planning on doing it and I needed to be careful in my response."

When the conditions are right, Josh will get up extra early to give up his seat on the school bus by travelling to Summit Middle School over the Dillon Reservoir from to Frisco.

"I would decide to kayak to school because I always want to do something cool that I'll remember for my whole life and I will remember this for my whole life," Josh said. 

Jason Smith said the first time out was nerve-wracking.

"I can remember finally pushing him off into the reservoir thinking what have I just done?" Jason Smith said.

The route Josh takes is about two miles long.

"Just throw my bag in the front, hope I don't capsize and get to school," Josh said.

The view is strictly Colorado.

"I really like how every time, I do it, the sun rises like when I'm in the middle of the lake and the whole lake is really smooth like glass," Josh said.

>>Video below: Follow Josh as he paddles his way across the water to school.

The danger, however, is real. That's why Jason Smith follows his son along the shoreline.

"I try and follow him just because you know, part of my job as dad is to protect him and keep him from doing stupid stuff or getting in trouble," Jason Smith said.

If dad's always there, why does he not just drive Josh to school?

"When my now 13-year-old boy approaches me and wants to do something out of his comfort zone, wants to stretch himself a little bit, wants to do something different, something unique that's a challenge, I've got to back that up," Jason Smith said.

Though this was not part of the original plan, Josh said his kayak commute is having an unintended effect.

"We like called the Summit Daily and they're like oh my gosh, yeah, we're putting you in the newspaper and then like all of these news channels wanted me and everything and now if like New York called, wanted to have me go there, I'd be like yeah," Josh said.

Josh is creating a national awareness of the worker shortage in schools.

"I've got a client in Detroit, Michigan who called me and said, is your son's name Josh? We heard about him on the radio this morning," Jason Smith said.

Crawford is a fan of Josh's efforts.

"I think he's just an example of the kind of thinking that is in this community," Crawford said. "He reflects our community."

Crawford hopes the added interest can lead to solutions for a small district that he said is down nearly of half of its normal bus routes due to staffing.

"People don't travel here for that kind of work. So, because I think because of our isolation and because of our remoteness, it really limits the pool more than it might in more populous parts of the state," Crawford said.

Jason Smith said he supports the schools' effort in trying to recruit and retain school bus drivers and other workers.

"If it gives them more attention, shines a light on them, then we think it's positive," Jason Smith said.

Josh's kayak trips are reaching places he never imagined.

"I think that everyone is just intrigued by it because they never heard anything like it," Josh said.

Though the weather over Dillon Reservoir is changing, Josh said he still plans to find a different way to school.

"When the lake freezes over and when it's too cold for me to do it, I'm gonna cross country ski to the school," Josh said. "I'm gonna cross country ski across the lake."

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