School & District Management

A District’s Bus ‘Disaster’ Highlights a Nationwide Driver Shortage

By Evie Blad — August 15, 2023 5 min read
A line of yellow buses passes through a parking lot.
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A first-day-of-school transportation meltdown caused Kentucky’s largest district to cancel six days of classes after it took hours for drivers to drive newly configured routes.

The last Jefferson County Schools student arrived home at 10 p.m., on the Aug. 9 start to the new school year, after some parents spent hours struggling to locate their children. Some state Republican lawmakers responded to the chaos by threatening to intervene. UPS, which has a transportation hub in Louisville, even offered to aid the district in planning routes.

The chaos was sparked by a problem that has affected school systems around the country: A shortage of bus drivers and increasingly complicated school schedules have fueled a push to do more with less, testing the logistical limits of transportation departments.

The district had enough drivers for about 950 routes 10 years ago, but it can only staff 550 routes this year to transport about 67,000 students, Superintendent Marty Pollio told reporters Monday, calling the first day a “disaster.”

“We are in a situation—not just here but nationally—where we are going to have to start making decisions about who we transport, when we transport, and who we don’t transport,” he said. “Because going from 950 to 550 in a few short years is nearly impossible.”

After days of triage, the district plans a staggered restart, bringing some students back Friday and the rest back Monday. They put some stopgap measures in place—like additional staff to help drivers navigate, additional vehicles to transport young students if there is no one waiting for them at their stop, and an app that will allow families to track buses and anticipate when their children will arrive home.

A new transportation plan led to chaos

In previous years, driver shortages led to some late buses and last-minute cancellations of routes in Jefferson County, district officials said. Last year, between 20 and 40 drivers drove double routes on any given day, which meant students didn’t make it to class on time or they were delayed getting home, a spokesperson told Education Week.

Seeking a more predictable transportation experience for families this school year, Jefferson County Schools sought to reduce the number of routes, moving some bus stops farther away from students’ homes to make the bus rides more efficient and consistent. They contracted with AlphaRoute, a software company that uses artificial intelligence to design a new busing plan that included new stops, new pickup times, and changed routes.

But district officials added new stops to the plan after it was drafted, not accounting for the time those revisions would add to individual routes, Pollio said.

Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio waits at the Detrick Bus Compound on the first day of school on Aug. 9, 2023 in Louisville, Ky. An overly-ambitious redesign of bus routes for Louisville's school district turned into a logistical meltdown on the first day of classes, forcing schools to close as administrators said Aug. 11, 2023 that students may have to stay home into part of next week until the mess is untangled.

Districtwide magnet programs, increased school choice options, and the use of an airport-like hub system to break up the longest bus rides has also made routes more complex over time, reducing the margin for error, he said.

The result was frustrating to families, some of whom shared concerns at a forum held over the weekend.

“You know, why was this not foreseen? Why did it take what happened on Wednesday to discover all of these mistakes?” JCPS parent Katie Carter asked at that event, according to Louisville news station WAVE. “It’s such an unfortunate situation all around.”

A group of Republican lawmakers called for a special session Aug. 10 to consider a range of measures, including splitting the school system up to make it easier to manage.

Meanwhile, teachers and school-funding advocates pointed fingers back in the direction of the Kentucky legislature. The state is required by statute to cover transportation expenses for school districts, but the state’s 2022 budget covered just 55 percent of those costs statewide, continuing a multiyear pattern, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

School bus driver shortages are a national problem

While Jefferson County’s bus woes got the most attention, other school districts around the country faced transportation hiccups as they started the new school year without enough drivers.

The Wake County, N.C., district said this week that about 3,100 students will be late to school because some of the school system’s 560 bus drivers can’t cover its 577 routes without making some adjustments, news station WRAL reported. Some drivers will take two routes on a given day, and the district will not be able to abide by its on-time arrival policy as it ensures all students are picked up, the station reported.

The Albemarle County, Va., district cut bus service for 1,000 students about a week before the Aug. 23 start date after it was unable to recruit enough drivers to fill 12 vacant positions.

There’s no recent national data on the extent of driver shortages, said Molly McGee-Hewitt, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, but the issue is a perennial challenge for districts.

The problem predates COVID-19, but the interruptions caused by the pandemic have made it worse, some transportation directors said. Some older drivers left the roles because of health concerns; some weren’t offered their typical positions during remote learning and never returned once schools reopened.

“The truth is, probably for the past 10 years, there has been a bus driver shortage, and it’s getting harder to hire folks,” McGee-Hewitt said.

That’s in part because of the “Amazon effect,” a growth of delivery jobs that have attracted would-be bus drivers away from school districts, she said. Some who may have been drawn to the roles in the past have opted for gig work, like rideshare driving. And some don’t want to deal with the logistics of working two shorter shifts in the morning and afternoon, McGee-Hewitt said.

Districts have worked to raise wages, offer hiring bonuses, and supplement drivers’ income by offering them other duties during the school day, but many still struggle to attract sufficient staff, she said.

It’s not unusual for a district to redraw routes or limit stops to help deal with driver shortages, McGee-Hewitt said, but the extent of Jefferson County’s changes and inadequate communication with families may have contributed to the problems there.

Pollio said the district will continue to look for ways to improve its transportation plans. And he will ensure families have up-to-date information about the status of their children’s buses, even if they are running late.

“We want to be very clear with families that this is the stop time we are able to provide with the resources that we have,” Pollio said. “As the current trend continues, we will continue to have more and more problems throughout this nation unless we address our significant bus driver issue.”

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