Staffing Hard-to-Fill Bus-Driver Positions in a Pandemic

Juvenal Landeros applies an antimicrobial coating to the interior of school buses in Austin, Texas. Extra cleaning and safety precautions aboard school buses to guard against coronavirus infection are among the challenges facing school transportation officials as they prepare to reopen for the 2020-21 academic year.
Juvenal Landeros applies an antimicrobial coating to the interior of school buses in Austin, Texas. Extra cleaning and safety precautions aboard school buses to guard against coronavirus infection are among the challenges facing school transportation officials as they prepare to reopen for the 2020-21 academic year.
—Julia Robinson for Education Week
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It’s difficult to recruit and hire an adequate number of school bus drivers in a typical year. But the challenge of reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic has created a confluence of complications that may make this year especially hard. School districts have identified strategies for recruiting and retaining drivers this year, but the uncertainty created by the virus and by changing state and federal guidance means there are no quick fixes.

Challenge: Driver Age—There were nearly 370,000 bus drivers employed by schools, districts, and school transportation companies in 2019, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

In March, the AARP deemed driving a school bus one of “Top 25 Part-Time Jobs for Retirees,” noting that 73 percent of bus drivers are over age 55.

School Buses and Social Distancing: A Downloadable Guide

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that older employees are at heightened risk from severe illness due to the coronavirus, and it recommends that schools make accommodations for them. But most state guidance focuses on teachers and support staff who can often work remotely, an option that is not available to bus drivers.

Challenge: Increased Likelihood of Absences—Under state reopening plans, students and staff members may have to self-quarantine for up to 14 days if they contract COVID-19 or have exposure to someone who tests positive. Health officials say students and employees should stay home if they have a fever or show any signs of illness to avoid possible transmission. That increases the likelihood of the need for substitute drivers and flexibility.

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Read Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Read Part 2: Scheduling the COVID-19 School Year
Back to Part 3: Tackling the COVID-19 Transportation Problem

Strategy: Employee Surveys—While many staffing discussions focus on teachers, district transportation officials said they also included potentially returning bus drivers in staff surveys to determine if age or other health vulnerabilities would make them less likely to take a route and what precautions would make them feel safer.

Strategy: Identify Built-In Backups—Like many districts, the Derby, Kan., school system plans to build up its pool of substitute drivers over the summer. Some of the district’s mechanics and other transportation personnel also carry commercial drivers’ licenses, which allow them to pick up a route.

Challenge: New Responsibilities—Managing student behavior on a full school bus can be a challenge on a typical day. But many districts will require their drivers to take on even more responsibilities during the 2020-21 school year, including completing student health screenings before children board, taking temperatures, enforcing mask requirements, and determining whether students need to be isolated if they show signs of illness during a ride.

These kinds of precautions may cause some drivers to shy away. When the Fullerton, Calif., school district shared photos of possible bus precautions on its Facebook page, drivers from other parts of the country reacted strongly, commenting that such measures might lengthen routes, stir up frustration and resistance in students, and make the job significantly more difficult. The district has since removed the post.

Strategy: Increased Training—Some states’ reopening guidance suggests increased training for school bus drivers to familiarize them with new requirements related to masks, social distancing, and student screening. That may also help drivers feel more confident about the precautions.

The Fleming County, Ky., district plans to add six additional hours of training on virus precautions on top of the eight annual hours of driver training required by the state, Superintendent Brian Creasman said.

Some states, like Kentucky, recommend that districts create videos to explain new protocols to students and their families well in advance, taking some of the burden off drivers to explain the rules.

Challenge: Uncertain Economic Effects—Perennial shortages of bus drivers are generally at their worst when the economy is thriving. That’s because would-be drivers have more options, including more-lucrative jobs that require a commercial drivers licenses.

But district leaders and transportation directors around the country said that, despite a high unemployment rate that would typically lead to more applications, they aren’t sure what to expect as they finalize their driver rosters in late summer. Some districts that normally employ drivers on a 10-month cycle stopped paying those employees when school buildings closed in March, giving them more time to find other jobs, said Denise Hall, transportation director for the Clayton County, Ga., district.

Challenge: Reduced Hours—Bus drivers typically earn an hourly wage with a guaranteed minimum schedule, but many have counted on picking up extra hours and income by driving for sports teams and activities. Those opportunities may be curbed if districts cancel athletics, extracurriculars, or field trips as a virus precaution.

Strategy: Offer Cash Incentives, Get Creative About Pitching the Job—Transportation officials told Education Week they had considered sign-on bonuses and targeted sectors that have been hard hit by pandemic job losses.

In Derby, Kan., district transportation Director Randy Collins also plans to hold special events to allow potential hires to try driving a school bus through district property, giving them a chance to visualize themselves behind the wheel. It’s a strategy the district has used for about five years, he said, and it has a secondhand effect when participants post photos of themselves driving on social media, making their friends and family more aware of the job openings.

Strategy: Alternate Responsibilities—Many school systems are planning for several reopening scenarios, including the potential for all-remote learning if virus rates remain high in their areas into the fall. And state health officials around the country have said additional, shorter building closures may be necessary until there is a vaccine.

In the event school bus drivers are not immediately needed to transport students, they may be put to work doing other things, like delivering grab-and-go school lunches and homework packets or driving buses equipped as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots into students’ neighborhoods to increase internet access. That will provide opportunities for drivers to log hours and for districts to retain employees.

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