Lack of bus drivers takes a toll on some school districts

This bus was parked along a highway in Griffin, Georgia.

© Andy Miller/KHN/TNS
This bus was parked along a highway in Griffin, Georgia.

Weeks after the start of the school year, rural school districts remain especially hard hit by the national shortage of school bus drivers that has received wide attention later this summer.

Bus routes have been shortened or expanded, drivers work longer hours, and in some cases administrators, mechanics and even teachers get behind the wheel. Some districts have offered hiring bonuses, increased driver salaries, and paid families to take children to school. Rural education experts worry that shortages will intensify inequalities, leaving rural children further behind academically.

“In many rural areas, there are high rates of poverty and many rural families may not have transportation, so if the buses are not running, the children literally have no other option to get to school,” said Mara Tieken, associate professor at Bates College of Maine and an expert in rural education. “It could mean more isolation, more online learning, and rural children may or may not be able to access it given the digital divide.”

School officials say many older drivers pulled out before risking illness. The obligation to get vaccinated has caused some drivers to quit and discouraged some would-be drivers from applying for employment. Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to disrupt schedules.

Two weeks ago, Barbara Case, superintendent of the General Brown Central School District in rural upstate New York, received a phone call informing her that two bus drivers had been exposed to COVID- 19. He had difficulty contacting substitutes and other drivers needed time off.

Case, who didn’t know if students riding those buses would be able to get to school the next day, thought about closing schools and going back to teaching online, he said.

“We fixed the schedule long enough to make it happen so we didn’t have to walk away for a day or a week,” Case said. “I dodged a bullet [ese día]. Fortunately, the driver did not have to quarantine. … But I was hanging by a thread “.

Currently, the district operates 18 routes, four of which do not have permanent bus drivers. Substitute bus drivers cover three of those routes, with the other route being split between mechanics, mechanic assistants and the assistant director of transportation, Case said.

The staffing needs at General Brown reflect the crisis facing other districts across the country. For some schools, the shortage of bus drivers has been catastrophic, according to a joint survey released in August by the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation and the National School Transportation Association.

About 78 percent of those surveyed, including school administrators, transportation directors, bus driver mechanics, and other officials, said the shortage is “much worse” or “a little worse,” while the 51 percent described their shortage as “severe” or “desperate.” 64 percent of respondents from rural southern states, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, reported much more difficulty retaining drivers, a higher percentage than respondents from the Northeast, Midwest, and West .

Schools in all regions have had to expand and combine bus routes, alter gate bell times, or cut bus services entirely during the pandemic, said Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association. , the leading organization of school bus transportation officials.

Survey participants cited issues of leave, availability of benefits and insufficient working hours as barriers to recruitment. Additionally, COVID-19 vaccination requirements in some districts cause drivers who are hesitant or resistant to the vaccine to waive or fail to apply, Macysyn said. In Connecticut, for example, multiple drivers threatened to quit employment in late September instead of complying with the vaccination mandate, the Hartford Courant reported. Despite this, most schools in that state did not report major driver absences.

“Our people are no different than anyone else,” Macysyn said. “As long as there is a level of doubt about vaccines in the general population, that is also going to reach the group of school bus drivers.”

No quick fix

Alice, a bus driver in rural South Carolina, drives an hour to work each morning. He collects the bus keys around 6:15 a.m. and heads to his first stop at 6:30 a.m. (Alice is used as a pseudonym, as the bus driver feared retaliation for speaking to a reporter.) Since the pandemic, she has taken additional routes. Since the stops are now so far apart, he doesn’t finish the last trip until 6:30 p.m., and he comes home around 7:30 p.m. Between one route and another, he cleans the bus, and sometimes he gets lost navigating the new routes.

“Whether it’s raining or not feeling well, the kids and their parents trust me to drive them home,” Alice says. “It’s a lot of stress. Some days, [los conductores de autobús] They come home and we just sit and cry. “

For years, Alice said, she and her colleagues did not earn a living wage; they have only recently received raises. Disrespect for the profession has caused drivers she knows to leave or seek other jobs, she said. Alice stays for the children.

“I was in quarantine and when I came back a girl gave me a piece of paper that said, ‘I missed you when you were away. I love you,'” Alice recalls. “That’s bigger than any check in the world, because obviously I did or said something to make her feel safe enough to tell me that. And that’s what it’s all about. Those kids are our future.”

Bill Kurts, transportation director for Lexington County School District One in South Carolina, also said many drivers love their jobs. Throughout his 25-year career in transportation, Kurts has worked in various positions, including bus driving, but said this is the worst shortage he has seen. Two weeks ago, 11 drivers were on leave for reasons related to COVID-19 and other health reasons, he said.

The Kurts District increased bus drivers’ pay by 5 percent this summer, in addition to a $ 1 an hour increase. And the school board is now considering a one-time bonus of $ 1,000 for full-time employees and $ 500 for part-time employees, Kurts said, hoping the extra money will attract drivers. However, the incentives don’t seem to work.

“Everybody’s hiring and they can’t find people,” Kurts said. “We are 36 [conductores] and the only thing we can do is double, sometimes, triple and quadruple the routes. “

Shortage across the country

It’s unclear how many bus driver positions are unfilled across the country, but districts in every state are feeling the effects, according to news reports and state departments of education that responded to a request from Stateline.

In Idaho, the Gooding School District was closed for a week this month due to a shortage of qualified bus drivers. In Maryland, some two dozen bus drivers recently went on strike, leaving students without transportation to schools for two days. In Connecticut, several drivers threatened to leave their jobs. And in Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker announced in September that about 250 members of the National Guard would be available to drive students to school.

The School District of Philadelphia offered $ 1,500 a year to families who were willing to take their children to school instead of taking the school bus. A Delaware school district also offered to pay parents $ 700 per child during the year to take their children to school. In Virginia and Maryland, school officials organize job fairs for bus drivers. In Montana, a school district offered $ 4,000 vouchers to drivers and invited people to test drive the buses.

In New York’s Case District, the administration provided $ 500 in referrals and a bonus of up to $ 2,500, depending on whether the driver had a commercial driver’s permit, or CDL, with a school bus endorsement prior to be hired.

To become a bus driver, candidates must pass examinations to acquire a commercial driver’s license (CDL), including additional tests to obtain the school bus endorsement added to the commercial driver’s license, and undergo a criminal background check according to American Student Transportation, a family-owned and operated bus company. The process can take anywhere from two weeks to six months, according to Macysyn. As the pandemic progresses, some school bus operations could remain at very low levels due to how long it takes potential candidates to obtain certification, he added.

“We have had very productive conversations with the [Administración Federal de Seguridad de Autotransportes]… and [esperamos] that manifests in a school bus-only CDL, “he said.” It would reflect more the role and responsibility of the school bus driver than the current broad-based CDL, which people get for driving a garbage truck or for the transportation of long distance”.

For superintendents like Case, each day feels like a struggle to determine how to educate students and keep them safe.

“It’s a very big burden on school officials to navigate these very murky waters, and I’m going to be honest, very difficult,” Case said. “It feels worrying. It feels chaotic at times, but you make the best decision you can when you look at all the situations you are faced with.”

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