The headline-grabbing national school bus driver shortage has forced districts to make a series of grim choices. Are there any better alternative strategies to address the problem?
Some say one partial solution might come from an emerging roster of tech-oriented transportation companies, described by some educators as the Ubers or Lyfts for school buses, such as HopSkipDrive and Zum.
Both companies, and their competitors, offer districts an alternative for some of their niche bus routes. That might mean transporting students experiencing homelessness who may wind up outside their school’s traditional boundaries, kids with special needs, or students in foster care who can remain in their school of origin, according to federal law. (Importantly, the companies emphasize that they are very different from rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft, though they use similar technology to track riders and drivers.)
Getting those routes handled by an outside company takes some of the pressure off districts, freeing them up to assign drivers to routes that serve a greater portion of the student population.
“School transportation is generally underappreciated,” said Paul Lewis, the chief finance officer and policy director for the Eno Center for Transportation, a transportation think tank.
The fleet of school buses nationwide is more than two times as large as that of all other public transportation systems combined, including municipal bus, rail, and airline. Finding drivers for those buses is “definitely a big, complicated problem, and there’s not always one solution to it,” he said.
Transporting special populations, in particular, provides “a one-off, unique but potentially expensive problem to solve,” Lewis added.
To tackle that problem, companies such as HopSkipDrive and Zum offer services with a technological twist, similar to popular rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft. That allows parents, caregivers, and school districts to know when they can expect a driver to arrive, where they are at any given time, and when a child has been dropped off at their destination.
In some cases, the companies can go even further. For example, Zum offers more comprehensive transportation services, including handling all or the bulk of a district’s transportation needs.
Recruiting bus drivers is very difficult
Recruiting bus drivers has long been challenging since they need to be specially trained and certified for a job that typically has relatively low pay and irregular hours. During the height of the pandemic, districts that switched to months or more of virtual learning laid off drivers or reassigned them to other jobs.
Once school started again, though, districts needed those drivers back fast but found many had moved on.
Nearly three-quarters of districts said they had bus driver shortages, including 57 percent who described their shortages as “considerable,” according to a survey of more than 350 districts conducted last year by the RAND Corp., a research organization.
The Colorado Springs District 11 worked with HopSkipDrive to navigate transportation problems that Michael Gaal, the superintendent, initially worried could only be solved by offering driver salaries so high they could “bankrupt” the district, he said.
Colorado Springs is dealing with both a ballooning population of English-language learners—who often require more costly services than other students—and a conservative community reluctant to approve local measures to raise revenue for the school system. That has made it tough to boost driver pay higher than the current rate, which is slightly above Colorado’s minimum wage of about $12.50 an hour.
Rather than using only yellow school buses and “packing [students] in like sardines,” the company advised district officials to add some smaller vehicles, such as vans, to transport students, Gaal said, pushing their thinking beyond the yellow school bus.
“Every American I know chooses now to use a gig solution, Uber or Lyft or whatever, to get wherever they want to go. Nobody waits a half an hour for the bus to show up,” Gaal said. “But then, once we put it back into a traditional place like education, so many people are resistant to that change.”
HopSkipDrive drivers are trained to work with kids, and the company requires new drivers to have significant prior experience in a caregiving role, which could include working in a nursing home, as a school cafeteria worker, or parenting.
Zum offers similar training, a big plus for the Oakland, Calif., school district, which first tried working with a local taxi company to transport students experiencing homelessness and those with special needs, said Kimberly Raney, who heads up transportation for the district.
Now, “it’s not like I’m picking up Joe Schmo going to a business meeting and the next thing I’m doing a 6-year-old special-needs kid who bites,” Raney said.
She’s also thrilled that the company can give parents and caregivers a heads-up on when the children will be arriving, sparing families from long waits outside in areas with high crime rates.
The “beauty” of these companies, said Josh Davis, the chief operations officer for the Chesterfield school district near Richmond, Va., is that they can “give you capability for a temporary period of time.”
That means if the district needs 10 kids picked up one day and 20 the next, contractors can “go with the flow” in a way the district itself wouldn’t be able to, Davis said. Chesterfield works with EverDriven, which Davis described as similar to Hop, Skip, Drive, and Zum.
Some districts, including Gaal’s, say the partnership has saved them money. But sometimes, at least by Davis’ calculations, contracting transportation services—even for a limited number of students—can be pricier for districts than providing it themselves.
But, he added, “sometimes, they’re the only solution that’s available, and you run with them.”