Janyce Johnson, or more commonly known as “JJ” to her coworkers and peers, celebrated her 50th year in pupil transportation on Oct. 9.
Johnson said in 1970 she had just moved to Lynwood, Illinois, from the southwest suburbs of Chicago, when she saw a “Now Hiring” sign in front of school bus contractor Kickert Bus Lines.
“I thought this would be a good way to learn the area,” she shared.
Today, Johnson continues to drive school buses for Kickert Bus Lines, a subsidiary of Cook-Illinois Corporation. While she has been a trainer, dispatcher and coordinator for Kickert throughout her career, she relayed that she loves being a school bus driver because of the interaction with the children.
Johnson shared she also currently works as a liaison between the company and its district customers. She said this role consists of working with each district’s transportation director to ensure the routes are complete and the school buses show up to pick up the students.
Her favorite part about her job, she said, is interacting not only with the students but the district employees and her coworkers. She said she hopes to continue to do what she loves for years to come, working “as a school bus driver, meeting interesting people and transporting students to school safely, especially the little ones,” she added.
Changes Throughout her Career
Fifty years in pupil transportation is an accomplishment in itself. Johnson shared that throughout her career there have been several changes in terms of technology, driver training and now the current health crises.
She explained that when she began her career, school buses were not equipped with two-way radios or GPS monitoring systems. She said cell phones or computer-generated routes with directions didn’t exist, and all buses were manual transmissions with hand-controlled school bus functions.
“[Technology has] improved service to the customers and that makes it safer,” Johnson said. “You know before we had no way to contact anyone if the bus broke down. You had to go knock on a [neighborhood] door to get help.”
However, she said buses equipped with radios as well as most students having cell phones mean help will be there within minutes if something goes wrong.
She also added that when she started driving, she was only required to pass a road test. But now, prospective drivers have to pass written tests, log 14 days of behind-the-wheel training, submit to fingerprint background checks, pass physicals and drug screening, and attend individual training sessions.
She added that drivers must also now carry a commercial driver’s license with a school bus passenger endorsement, which has improved student safety.
Johnson noted on Oct. 9 that she also drove the first electric school bus in the state of Illinois, which is owned by Kickert Bus Lines, as part of her 50th-year celebration.
“It’s very quiet, it’s very smooth,” Johnson said of driving the vehicle. “… The only thing I didn’t like about it was when you’re waiting on an incline, if you take your foot off the brake it rolls back right away. It doesn’t have that pull.”
Currently, with the ongoing health crisis, COVID-19 has presented challenges to the school bus industry. “The school bus industry has been greatly impacted by the current conditions and I hope we can survive and return to service our students,” she added.
She said right now, Kickert is transporting students that are either falling behind in remote learning or students with special needs and disabilities that need the in-person classroom environment.
She explained that her 71-passenger school bus is currently only transporting 10 to 12 students due to social distancing requirements and low student ridership. She added that school bus drivers and students are required to wear a facemask while onboard, and drivers are required to spray down the bus after every route with disinfectant spray.
She said in addition to challenges presented by COVID-19, the industry is also challenged with providing more specialized student transportation as well as hiring and retaining qualified, reliable employees.
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“My personal challenges have been to remain healthy and minimize stress through the years,” she added.
While no memorable school bus stories stand out to her from her career, she does remember the first time a student referred to her as “grandma,” which she shared happened around 15 years ago.
Johnson said she has also been fortunate to transport her grandson, as she was the driver assigned to his route.
Johnson’s parting advice to new and upcoming drivers is to keep an open mind. “[And] to treat the kids like they’re your own family. Think of them as your own kids or your friends,” she concluded, adding her time working in the industry has flown by.