As more Americans receive COVID-19 vaccines and schools reopen, school districts across the country are struggling to find bus drivers to transport students back to school.
Finding school bus drivers has been a longstanding problem for districts, but it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic and the widespread return to school. In a survey taken in March by HopSkipDrive, nearly four-fifths of school transportation professionals including superintendents, directors of transportation, and school transportation staff said the bus driver shortage was a problem for them. More than half of school districts with 25,000 to 100,000 students said they believed it could take three months or more to resume normal transportation operations.
One problem is that many bus drivers are not returning to those jobs when schools reopen. Some are older or have pre-existing medical conditions, making them at high risk for complications from COVID-19. Other drivers have transitioned to jobs in the private sector after a year of being unemployed or furloughed.
Because of social distancing protocols, school buses are operating at about 50 percent capacity, in most places, which means schools will need many more additional drivers as schools reopen. But filling those bus driver seats has been a struggle for many districts because of the short hours, rigorous training, and a shrunken pool of substitute drivers. And with driver’s license agencies closed for a significant period during the pandemic, districts weren’t able to certify new recruits.
“You’re not seeing the full ramification of this because we are just kind of returning to school,” said National School Transportation Association Executive Director Curt Macysyn. He said the worst effects of the pandemic-fueled shortages are yet to come.
Experts say the school bus driver shortage could be improved by offering paid training, and better benefits to attract newcomers to the field, focusing on driver retention, and staggering school start times so the same buses can run two routes per shift.
Districts are scaling back services
In the meantime, some districts are cutting back on transportation services. Milwaukee Public Schools canceled 160 bus routes in April because there weren’t enough drivers. Cherie Hime, the executive director of the Wisconsin School Bus Association, said the issue had been ongoing for 20 years in the state but became a “transportation logistics nightmare” during the pandemic. After Milwaukee schools closed to in-person instruction in March of 2020, the district’s drivers had to take other jobs, and only about 60 percent to 70 percent returned when schools reopened. Hime said the impact of the driver shortage, besides the reduced routes, has been that drivers are working extra shifts.
Pennsylvania School Bus Association Executive Director Ryan Dellinger said the school bus driver shortage in his state had been an issue since well before COVID-19 hit, but the pandemic added new obstacles. A significant portion of the school bus drivers across the state are retirees, he said, who don’t want to risk exposure to the virus.
In Pittsburgh, 638 students currently don’t have transportation to school because there aren’t enough school bus drivers. In addition to launching a driver recruitment campaign statewide, Dellinger said he wants to expedite the 12-week process for training school bus drivers.
Denver Public Schools has been experiencing a bus driver shortage for about four years, coming up short by 45 to 55 drivers on average at any given time. Worse, the district said many of its older drivers decided to retire during the pandemic, and transportation officials couldn’t hire new recruits to replace them.
Before COVID-19, Denver schools had 20 to 30 different bell times across the district. This fall, schools will start in three time windows based on grade levels: 7:30 to 7:40 a.m., 8:05 to 8:25 a.m., and 8:50 to 9:10 a.m. With those new bell times, the existing drivers will work longer shifts and drive to several schools back-to-back, but the district is still short 20 more drivers.
“It’s really important that we can get back to full transportation so that our students can have the access that they deserve to education,” said Jim Carpenter, the district’s deputy superintendent of operations.
In Lee’s Summit, Mo., school district officials are considering increasing benefits for bus drivers, who work only five hours per day, so that they don’t lose them to private industry and to attract replacement drivers for those who moved on to another job during the pandemic.
“You’re not just driving a bus, you’re there providing for kids, and at the same time you’re maneuvering a 40-foot bus filled with children behind you,” said Lee’s Summit Superintendent David Buck, noting that the difficulty of the job makes it less appealing to prospective applicants.
Another issue is that, while states like Missouri have legalized medical marijuana, bus drivers are still required to pass random drug tests, which makes some drivers balk.
To deal with the shortage, the district has had to combine routes for the 9,000 students taking the bus, but that number is expected to increase to 14,000 by next school year.
Additionally, 24 school staff members are driving buses to substitute for missing drivers.
“That means their jobs are not getting done, or they’re working overtime or in the evenings to do the regular parts of the job,” Buck said.
While the district could increase walking zones, Buck said, students who are farther away from the school would be at a disadvantage.
Another solution the district is considering, Buck said, is to stagger school start and end times. Instead of the current three-tiered, start-time bus system, district leaders could increase it to four or five tiers.
Situation calls for reimagining the job
In Ellensburg, Wash., the district experienced a 33 percent loss in school bus drivers since last spring, losing 13 out of 39 drivers. Officials have implemented a staggered start schedule, ranging from a grade school start at 7:30 a.m. to a high school start at 9:20 a.m. But that makes it difficult for parents with students of varying ages, so the district is working on closing the gap between start times.
District leaders are also considering offering drivers eight-hour shifts, arranging for them to work as paraeducators during the day, between driving times. “We’re gonna have to really look at that position differently, because they’re such an essential staff member,” Superintendent Jinger Haberer said.
Several districts, including Lee’s Summit and Ellensburg, are starting to pay drivers for the training hours they put in before they meet official job-entry requirements as another enticement.
Beaufort County Schools in South Carolina shifted its recruitment tactics to targeted advertisements on digital platforms like Facebook and putting geofences, which allow marketers to target customers with advertisements based on where they are, around areas like grocery stores with high traffic, according to Eldrige Black, the district’s director of transportation.
The NSTA, meanwhile, is proposing a commercial driver’s license specific to school buses, which would streamline the skill requirements. Paying bonuses to drivers getting back to work could also make the job more appealing, said the NSTA’s Macysyn.
“There are a lot of people out there very passionate about the job, so we just want to kind of highlight that passion and see if we can attract people,” Macysyn said.