School district leaders in at least 11 states have asked for help this school year from their state’s National Guard on bus driver shortages that have become more acute than ever, according to an Education Week analysis of local media reports.
But getting help from that organization may not be as easy in every state as it has been in Massachusetts, where Guard members since September have shuttled students to and from school and pitched in with efforts to expand COVID-19 testing.
Guard members in Massachusetts enrolled in rapid-turnaround training programs to be able to safely drive students in buses and vans, filling the gaps school districts are facing as a result of pandemic pressures and broader labor disruption in the U.S. economy.
In addition to the welcome manpower for school transportation and COVID-19 testing administration, the deployment of the state’s National Guard generated widespread headlines that drew the general public’s attention to the scope of the staff shortage, said Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
“I think it’s been a game changer in lots of ways,” Scott said.
The National Guard is made up of 440,000 civilian members in 54 separate organizations—one for each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and three U.S. territories. Most members serve part-time on weekends and a few weeks during the year while working regular jobs.
The Guard’s main domestic duties include law enforcement and disaster relief. During the pandemic, Guard members have helped out by administering care in hospitals, leading vaccination efforts, providing security protection at the presidential inauguration, and supporting elections. Balancing domestic disasters and foreign duties has been increasingly tricky for Guards in recent years, the Military Times reported.
Governors are the most common activators of the Guard, but the federal government can step in as well. The White House last month considered—but ultimately decided against—mobilizing the National Guard to fill labor gaps that have contributed to massive supply-chain disruptions affecting manufacturing and distribution across the country.
In recent years, the National Guard has become a go-to source of emergency assistance for states staring down crises or disasters, which have come in many forms, said John Goheen, director of communications for the National Guard Association of the United States, which counts all 54 state and territory National Guard corps among its members.
“The Guard has become something of a Swiss army knife,” Goheen said. “They have the confidence of every governor to the point where, if something needs to be done, governor’s offices around the country go, ‘Can the Guard do it?’”
During his 25 years at the association, he can’t recall the Guard helping out at schools. Perhaps the Guard’s highest-profile intersection with schools to date was in 1957, when Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas, called in the Guard to help prevent the federally mandated racial integration of public schools.
District leaders in Massachusetts have recently seen an uptick in interest for open positions for bus drivers and related positions, Scott said. He attributes that in part to the National Guard’s high-profile involvement.
But other places have seen reluctance to get the National Guard involved in education.
A few of the reasons for the hesitation include:
Costs and risks. District leaders in Clark County, Nev., in late September requested 50 to 100 Guard members to serve as drivers. Guard leaders expressed concerns about liability risks associated with driving students on busy roads in the urban center of Las Vegas.
They also said most of their members didn’t have the right licenses to quickly get behind the wheel of a school bus and that the Guard didn’t have $500,000 available per month to fulfill the request, according to a report in the Las Vegas Sun.
“The driving practice, both on the streets and on the cone course for them to be competent probably is not achievable in a time frame to be adequate for your needs,” Dave Fogerson, the state’s emergency management chief, replied in a letter to the school district, the Sun reported.
Officials in Delaware recently shared similar concerns, rejecting requests for the state to emulate the approach of Massachusetts.
Limited staff resources. The Guard is a finite resource that has been stretched thin between its domestic and overseas duties, said Paul Jara, director of staff for the Arkansas Air National Guard and author of “A Framework for National Guard Employment in the Homeland.”
Deploying the National Guard sometimes means taking people away from essential jobs to do other essential jobs, Jara said.
“If we activate a Guardsman with an educational background to fill a need in area A, we may have concurrently created a shortfall in area B,” he said.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said recently that he doesn’t want to take Guard members away from their civilian duties to help with school staffing or shortages in nursing.
Policy constraints. The Milwaukee district also requested help from the Wisconsin National Guard, reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The governor’s office shared in response that, according to an advisory from the Wisconsin Legislative Council, school staffing shortages don’t fall under the list of categories that permit the governor to call in the Guard. A state emergency might have made the difference, but Gov. Tony Evers had already allowed the COVID-19 emergency declaration to expire.
Mike Lawler, an assemblyman in the New York state legislature, told Education Week he called this summer for his governor to activate the National Guard to help with bus driver shortages. The state declined the request, saying the Guard’s role doesn’t extend to that sort of help.
Lawler thinks that was a mistake. “This could have been avoided in a significant way had they acted pre-emptively and reactively,” he said.
Optics. Even in Massachusetts, where the Guard has been activated, sentiments aren’t uniformly bullish. Administrators in Amherst raised concerns that bringing uniformed Guard members to the school would prove traumatizing for students, offsetting the manpower value they would provide, the Hampshire Daily Gazette reported.
No formal request...yet. Spokespeople for the National Guards in Arizona, Hawaii, Kentucky, Vermont, and North Carolina told Education Week and other media outlets that they’re aware of discussions in the state about using the National Guard for schools, and would eagerly contribute if called, but they haven’t received a formal request yet.
“While we are ready to support in any way we can, all other options have to be exhausted before the Arizona National Guard would be called in,” said Kyle Key, a spokesperson for Arizona’s Guard. “We are usually a last resort.”
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2021 edition of Education Week as Are Bus Driver Shortages So Bad They Require The National Guard? Why Leaders Made the Call