HopSkipDrive recently published our State of School Transportation report, revealing the results of a survey of school transportation professionals, Superintendents and more. While the report is comprehensive (and a recommended read), this article dives into pupil transportation’s five most significant challenges today.
Respondents ranked major challenges, from the ongoing pandemic to bus driver shortages, with these five far and away the most common.
1. COVID-19 Concerns
The COVID-19 pandemic further complicated school and, of course, school transportation. We heard COVID-19 concerns from 72 percent of respondents — making it the most significant pain point in the transportation landscape. It’s been a considerable challenge, from worried bus drivers to anxious parents — which exacerbates the second item on the list: staff shortages.
Many bus drivers and other transportation providers are concerned about exposure to COVID-19. The average bus driver is 56 years old; older populations have a higher risk of developing serious complications from the coronavirus.
One director of transportation said, “We’ve already lost one driver over concerns about COVID. Most of our drivers are retirement age.”
In addition to COVID-exacerbated staffing concerns, some survey respondents believe that parents won’t send their children back to school until they’re satisfied with the transportation plan.
“Carpool is going to be really complicated. I’m not sure people will come to school until we can sort out safe transportation,” one respondent said.
2. Staffing Issues
Before the pandemic began, the biggest concern was a severe bus driver shortage. According to respondents, the pandemic has only worsened the shortage.
Of the survey respondents, 78 percent felt constrained by the bus driver shortage, with 81 percent believing COVID-19 further exacerbated the shortage.
“Driver shortages are a reality every school year,” said a school transportation staff member. “The added constraints due to COVID have increased this reality exponentially.”
COVID-19 isn’t the only factor in this nationwide shortage. Recruiting, training, and retaining bus drivers is challenging. While one generation of drivers retires, districts have trouble finding new school bus drivers.
“It’s hard to find individuals that would like to drive a school bus. Only being able to offer a contract for five hours a day is a major factor,” said one director of transportation.
3. Funding Constraints
School transportation officials are also concerned about funding restraints affecting school transportation: 57 percent of respondents listed budget concerns as a significant pain point.
“COVID has been devastating for school transportation,” said one transportation executive. “The limits placed on bus companies create a money-losing proposition.”
4. School Bus Utilization
The CDC has issued very clear social distancing and masking guidelines to promote student and driver safety during bus rides to and from school. These new regulations significantly reduce rider capacity on each bus, putting more strain on an already vulnerable operation.
“We will need three to four times the resources to get the same number of students to school,” said one director of transportation.
But those resources are hard to come by. Due to the bus driver shortage, some school districts cannot staff all the school buses they need on the road.
“Without bus drivers, contracted services must be used,” said one respondent.
5. Planning Transportation for Each Student
Finally, respondents voiced concerns about planning transportation for each one of their students. Many students get to school on a school bus or via carpool. But the pandemic has changed that.
“Even after COVID, I believe many parents will drive their children to school,” said one director of transportation. “I think this trend could stick around for years.”
Of course, parent transportation isn’t a realistic option for many pupils. To achieve educational equity, all students need safe, reliable transportation to school. For some students, that’s a school bus. For others, including children in some of the country’s most vulnerable groups, it’s an alternative transportation solution.
Students experiencing homelessness, foster youth, and children with special needs may require alternative transportation to school. Some respondents believe COVID-19 will increase this need.
“We believe, due to COVID-19, our homeless population will significantly increase. We will have a bigger need for alternative transportation solutions,” the respondent continued.
6. And a Silver Lining…
While school transportation professionals are certainly experiencing frustrations, the past year’s challenges still held a silver lining.
“COVID-19 has afforded many transportation professionals the opportunity to collaborate more than in normal times,” said one director of transportation. “This is key in this field. We really don’t do our jobs without the support of others.”
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