Short on bus drivers, school districts around the country have revised transportation plans in ways that have widely impacted families’ daily lives.
In some districts, students who once rode to school will now have to walk. Others must board buses earlier so that drivers can complete two routes each morning.
In Lake Travis, Texas, students will have bus service on alternating weeks, leaving families to fend for themselves on off weeks. In Chicago, where leaders offered some families stipends to transport their children to school, some parents have complained about a lack of communication.
As the school year starts, the planning challenges that dominated the summer for district leaders have become communications challenges. Leaders must help parents understand the tough choices they’ve had to make alongside practical details families need to know—like information about relocated bus stops and complicated schedules.
“We do the best we can,” said Brad Bailey assistant superintendent for operations at Lake Travis schools. “We help them understand we are doing everything we are able to do, but we just don’t have the staff to do it.”
Education Week spoke with three district leaders about how they have kept families in the loop on transportation changes. Here are a few key takeaways.
Why this year’s driver shortages are so painful
Schools have struggled with hiring for a variety of roles—including cafeteria workers, substitute teachers, and support staff—throughout the pandemic. But district leaders say the unmet need for school bus drivers is a particularly sharp pain point this year. Families crave a “return to normal,” but hiring remains challenging.
Eighty-six percent of respondents to a nationally representative survey of school and district administrators conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in July said they don’t have enough candidates to fill open bus driver positions. Seventy-nine percent said they have fewer applicants for those positions than they did last year.
The difficulty in hiring drivers is in part a reflection of staffing challenges across industries, said David Glasner, the superintendent of the 4,500-student Shaker Heights, Ohio, school district.
People who may have taken bus routes in the past are now attracted to other driving jobs that are growing in demand, such as delivering for companies like Amazon or driving for services like Uber, he said. Some of those jobs have higher pay and more-flexible schedules, and some drivers don’t want to take on the challenge of being responsible for students and managing their behavior, the superintendents said.
Shaker Heights had 50 bus drivers three school years ago, Glasner said, and that number dropped to about 35 last school year.
This year, the district has only been able to recruit or retain about 25 bus drivers after some of last year’s staff chose not to return. That left leaders scrambling. School starts next week, and Glasner has spent this week considering limiting bus rides to students who live further from school than has been the practice in years past, when riders could live as close as a mile.
In the meantime, he’s kept parents in the loop with updates, and he’s given interviews in local media to explain the situation.
The district staffing has fallen well below “the bare minimum” of what it would take to operate at pre-pandemic levels, Glasner said.
In Lake Travis, Bailey has also turned to local media to explain the district’s predicament.
The fast-growing community has added a lot of new homes in recent years, increasing the need for transportation, he said. At the same time, many would-be bus drivers have been priced out of the area due to a higher cost of living. Rather than spending the money to commute with high gas prices, they’ve taken jobs driving closer to home, Bailey said.
Pre-pandemic, the district had about 75 drivers. This year, they’ve only been able to recruit 36, even after raising starting pay to $23 an hour, holding job fairs with bouncy houses and kids’ games, and offering free training to candidates.
“We’ve just tried to do everything we know possible,” Bailey said. “We are just not getting the traffic.”
Offering families specific, updated information
Lake Travis’s new transportation plan means families’ access to buses will change from week to week. That makes it even more essential for the district to provide as much specific information as possible so that it’s not difficult for a parent to answer simple questions like whether to walk their child to the bus in the morning, Bailey said.
The district’s drivers will each learn two routes, switching between them on alternating weeks. The school system has posted an updated route schedule in a prominent place on its website, and leaders hope to be able to expand service as they recruit more drivers, Bailey said.
The district also uses an automatic texting system to let parents know if their child’s bus is running late, a potential issue at the beginning of the year as drivers learn additional new routes and deal with unpredictable traffic.
Two hundred miles away in Fort Worth, Texas, leaders also plan to offer families personalized information about school transportation, said Joseph Coburn, chief of district operations.
The district plans to purchase an app in the next week that will allow it to send targeted alerts to families by bus route. In the next few years, Coburn hopes to offer families the option to track their child’s bus in real-time through a GPS system.
Last year, when bus routes were late to get students home, transportation dispatchers had to rush to contact families, Coburn said. And that was particularly challenging on days when dispatchers and mechanics volunteered to drive a route to fill staffing shortages.
Keeping school leaders in the know
Fort Worth, which has had about 300 drivers in the past, is down to about 200 this school year.
Last year, trying to operate full routes on a skeleton crew meant unreliable and late service for families, Coburn said.
“Even on our best day, with anybody who could drive a bus driving a bus, we had 30 to 40 uncovered routes every single day,” he said. “We were providing service that was neither good nor reliable.”
This year, the district cut about 60 of its 275 routes so that families wouldn’t wake up in the morning to discover their child’s bus wasn’t there. Even after raising pay and offering referral and hiring bonuses, leaders weren’t able to recruit enough drivers.
After seeking input from principals, Coburn started from scratch, combining and redrawing bus routes to make them as efficient as possible. That meant changes for families. Some students have to walk about a tenth of a mile further to get to the bus stop, and some buses run as early as 6 a.m., particularly those that crisscross town to take students to magnet programs far from their neighborhoods.
Recognizing that people closer to families, like principals and bus drivers, would likely field the most questions about the changes, Coburn sought their input early. And he’s given them internal updates so they can explain changes to parents.
“We did not work miracles here,” Coburn said. “What we did is say that we have to work around the conditions that we have.”
Schools keep hiring—and make it visible
Even after they cut corners to keep the buses running, district leaders say they plan to keep up urgent efforts to recruit new drivers in hopes that they can offer more service and have more breathing room in the coming months.
Some have put banners at school entrances to advertise pay and bonuses. Others have set up information tables at school open houses.
In Shaker Heights, Glasner has surveyed returning drivers about work preferences and competing job options in hopes of improving recruiting. He hopes a visible approach will help bring in more candidates and help families understand the headwinds.
“The shortage we are facing is real,” Glasner said. “We are doing our best, and we will continue to do our best to meet the needs of all of our students and families.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2022 edition of Education Week as Lacking Bus Drivers, Schools Make Tough Calls on Transportation