Bus driver shortage is straining rural school districts

Read more Stateline coverage of how schools are affected by COVID-19.

A few weeks after the start of the school year, rural school districts remain particularly hard hit by the nationwide shortage of school bus drivers that drew attention at the end of the summer.

Bus routes have been shortened or extended, drivers are working longer, and in some cases administrators, mechanics and even teachers are climbing behind the wheel. Some districts offered hiring bonuses, increased driver salaries, and paid families to bring children to school. Rural education experts fear that the shortage will intensify inequalities, leaving rural children further academically.

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

School officials say many older drivers retired early rather than risk falling ill. Vaccination warrants prompted some drivers to quit and deterred some potential drivers from applying for the job. Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to interrupt schedules.

Almost two weeks ago, Barbara Case, superintendent of the General Brown Central School District in upstate New York, received a phone call indicating that two bus drivers had been exposed to COVID-19. She was having trouble reaching replacements and the other drivers needed time off.

Case – unsure whether students who take these buses could make it to school the next day – considered closing schools and reverting to online learning, she said.

“We set the schedule enough to do it, so we didn’t have to travel remotely for a day or a week,” Case said. “I dodged a bullet [that day]. Fortunately, the driver did not have to quarantine himself. … But I was hanging by a thread.

Currently, the district operates 18 lines, four of which do not have permanent bus drivers. Alternate bus drivers cover three of those routes, and the other route is split between mechanics, mechanic helpers and the deputy director of transportation, Case said.

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General Brown’s staffing needs reflect the crisis facing other districts across the country. For some schools, the shortage of bus drivers has been catastrophic, according to a joint investigation published 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% of respondents, including school administrators, transportation managers, bus drivers, mechanics and other managers, said the shortage was getting worse “a lot worse” or “a little worse”, while 51% described their shortage as “serious” or “desperate”. Sixty-four percent of respondents from rural southern states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma reported significantly more difficulty retaining drivers, a higher percentage than respondents in the Northeast, Midwest and West.

Schools in every region have had to either expand and combine bus routes, change bell times or completely cut bus services during the pandemic, said Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, the main organization for those responsible for school bus transportation.

Survey participants cited licensing issues, availability of benefits and insufficient working hours as barriers to recruitment. And COVID-19 vaccination requirements in some districts are causing hesitant or vaccine-resistant drivers to stop or not apply at all, Macysyn said. In Connecticut, for example, several drivers threatened to quit their jobs at the end of September instead of complying with a vaccination mandate, reported the Hartford Current. Despite this, most schools in this state did not report any major driver absences.

“Our people are no different from others,” Macysyn said. “To the extent that there is a level of reluctance to immunize in the general population, it will also gain ground in the pool of school bus drivers.”

No quick fix

Alice, a bus driver in rural South Carolina, drives an hour each morning to get to work. She picks up her bus keys around 6:15 a.m. and heads to her first stop at 6:30 a.m. (Alice is being used as a pseudonym because the bus driver feared retaliation for speaking with a reporter.) Since the pandemic, she’s committed additional routes. Because her stops are so far apart now, she doesn’t finish her last drop until 6:30 p.m., returning home around 7:30 p.m. Between each trip, she disinfects the bus, and sometimes she gets lost while navigating new routes.

“Whether it’s raining or I’m not feeling well, the kids and their parents rely on me to bring them home,” said Alice. “It’s a lot of stress. Some days, [bus drivers] come home, and we set right there, and we cry.

For years, says Alice, she and her colleagues haven’t earned a living wage; it was only recently that they received salary increases. Lack of respect for the profession has driven the drivers she knows to leave or find other jobs, she said. Alice is staying because of the children.

“I was in quarantine, and when I came back a little girl gave me a piece of paper and he said, ‘I missed you when you were out. I love you, ”recalls Alice. “It’s bigger than any check in the world, because obviously I did or said something that she felt safe enough to tell me. And that’s what it’s all about. These children are our future.

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Bill Kurtz, transportation director for Lexington County School District 1 in Lexington, South Carolina, also said many drivers enjoy the job. During his 25-year career in transportation, Kurtz has held several positions including bus driver, but said it was the worst shortage he has seen. Two weeks ago, 11 drivers were absent for reasons related to COVID-19 and other health reasons, he said.

The district of Kurtz raised the wages of bus drivers by 5% this summer, in addition to an increase of $ 1 per hour. And the school board is now considering a one-time bonus of $ 1,000 for full-time employees and $ 500 for part-time employees, Kurtz said, hoping the extra money will attract drivers. However, the incentives don’t seem to be working.

“Everyone hires and can’t find people,” Kurtz said. “We are 36 years old [drivers] short, and all we can do is sometimes double triple and quadruple routes.

National shortages

It is not known how many bus driver positions are vacant nationwide, but districts in each state are feeling the effects, according to reports and state education departments responding to a report. Stateline request.

Gooding School District in Idaho closed one week this month due to a shortage of qualified bus drivers. In Maryland, about two dozen bus drivers recently went on strike and left the students without transportation to school for two days. Several pilots threatens to quit work in Connecticut. And in Massachusetts, Republican Governor Charlie Baker announcement in September that about 250 members of the National Guard would be available to take students to school.

The Philadelphia School District Free $ 1,500 per year to families willing to drive their children to school instead of taking the school bus. A Delaware school district also offered to pay parents $ 700 per child for the year to bring the children to school. In Virginia and Maryland, school leaders organize job fairs for bus drivers. In Montana, a school district offered drivers $ 4,000 in bonuses and invited people to test drives.

In the Case District of New York, the administration provided referral allowances of $ 500 and up to $ 2,500 in bonuses, depending on whether the driver had a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, with an approval from school bus before use.

To become a bus driver, candidates must take exams to acquire a CDL, including additional tests to get school bus approval added to the CDL, 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, Macysyn said. As the pandemic continues, some school bus operations could remain at extremely low levels due to the time it takes for potential candidates to gain certification, he added.

“We had very productive conversations with the [Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration] … and [we hope] this manifests itself in a CDL reserved for school buses, ”he said. “It would reflect the role and responsibility of the school bus driver more than the current broad-based CDL, which people get for driving garbage trucks or for long-haul trucking.”

For superintendents like Case, every day feels like a rush to figure out how to educate students and keep them safe.

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

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