As school systems around the country struggle to fill vacant bus driver jobs, more districts have turned to familiar faces: their own employees.
In suburban school systems near Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., teachers are signing up to drive routes before and after classes.
A school district in rural North Carolina has begun requiring newly hired support staff—including cafeteria workers, classroom aides, and custodians—to complete bus driver training.
And in western Pennsylvania, superintendents in two districts earned their state certification and commercial licenses over the summer in case they’re needed in a pinch.
More than 90 percent of school districts across the country reported bus driver shortages in a survey released this year by the National Association for Pupil Transportation. One-third of those districts described it as “desperate or severe” in the recent survey, said Mike Martin, the association’s executive director.
The shortages are perennial, though, and they stem from various factors, including low pay, limited hours, and split work shifts that make the job unappealing to potential hires.
To address the shortages, some districts have cut or combined routes or shifted school start times, changes that can increase the number of parents and high school students driving to school.
“The shortages are getting bad enough, in some cases, where it’s becoming a dramatic safety issue,” said Michael LaRocco, the president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. “Anybody that you can find [to drive buses] who is capable and qualified works, and that includes teachers.”
Extending the Classroom
This year, the Carmel Clay, Ind., school district began paying teachers up to $18,000 per year to drive buses, added income that could boost their pay more than 30 percent in some cases.
When Cathy Hardwick started teaching in Carmel Clay more than three decades ago, she never envisioned driving a bus. Two weeks into the driving job, she relishes the opportunity to connect with students outside of school.
“It’s an extension of my classroom,” said Hardwick, an elementary school physical education teacher who drives middle and elementary school bus routes. “I’m engaged with kids more now. I guess I was made to be with children.”
To recoup the lesson preparation time she misses out on at the beginning and end of the day, Hardwick often returns to school on the weekends or when her afternoon routes end.
“You really have to manage your time better,” Hardwick said.
Roger McMichael, the associate superintendent for business affairs in Carmel Clay, estimates that hundreds of teachers there already supplement their income with part-time jobs. The average annual teacher salary in Carmel Clay is about $55,000.
Nationally, nearly 1 in 5 public school teachers have second jobs during the school year, federal data show. Hardwick worked part-time retail and landscaping jobs early in her career and has colleagues who do similar work or wait tables at night or on weekends to earn extra cash.
“If you need extra money, it does relieve some financial stress,” Hardwick said.
The teacher hires are also qualified to handle one of the most difficult parts of being a bus driver: managing the behavior of dozens of children while your back is turned, McMichael said.
About 30 miles outside of Washington, the Prince William County, Va., school system has also hired a handful of full-time teachers to drive buses.
The driver shortage is so severe that the district has hired a human resources employee solely to focus on bus driver recruitment. The district—which has at least four teachers driving buses this school year—offers full benefits to drivers, including dental, medical, and vision, said Kathy Snow, administrative coordinator human resources and recruitment for transportation in Prince William.
The driver shortages are most acute in the Midwest and Northeast, in part because the challenge of operating buses during snow-filled winter months deters applicants, said Martin of the National Association for Pupil Transportation.
In school districts in Maine and Michigan, schools shut down for the day during the 2018-19 school year because they didn’t have enough substitutes to cover routes for drivers who called in sick.
But districts in warmer climates have also struggled to attract candidates. Mesa, Ariz., schools changed school start and end times to reduce the number of drivers it needs. Even so, the district has dozens of driver vacancies, nearly a month into the school year, said Scott Thompson, the assistant superintendent of business services for Mesa.
“Anybody who has a (commercial drivers license) is driving, and that might be dispatchers, that might be supervisors, that might be the director of transportation if she has to,” Thompson said. “But I worry, you can only ask people to keep doing those heroic things day after day for so long and they just get tired.”
After hourly wage boosts didn’t attract enough candidates, the Moore County, N.C., school board passed a policy that requires all support staff to obtain a bus driving license and be available to drive if needed.
In western North Carolina, the Haywood County school system seeks out full- and part-time employees who want to drive buses on either end of their regular work shift.
Arnie Nadonley, the superintendent of the Richland schools in Cambria County, Pa., earned his commercial driving license this summer alongside several other district employees at the behest of the district’s busing contractor.
“We want to be proactive,” Nadonley said. “You never know when you may have to get behind the wheel.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teacher-Drivers Keep Wheels on the Bus Going Round