HopSkipDrive recently published its annual State of School Transportation Report for 2022. The goal? To discover how a wide variety of school and transportation professionals — from directors of transportation, bus drivers, McKinney-Vento liaisons and special needs coordinators to superintendents, principals and operations managers — really feel about the state of school transportation today.
Here are six key takeaways from our comprehensive 2022 survey.
1. Educational equity and transportation are linked.
All students deserve equal access to an outstanding education. But in reality, numerous roadblocks prevent many children from accessing the educational opportunities they deserve. And there’s perhaps no greater barrier to learning than access to reliable, safe transportation to and from school.
This year’s State of School Transportation survey demonstrated a clear connection between equitable education and transportation. In fact, half of survey respondents reported a direct link between access to transportation and educational equity in their school district.
As one anonymous respondent pointed out: “When students’ ability to attend school is directly linked to their ability to access public transportation, there will always be inequities and disparities.”
This is, unfortunately, especially true in low-income and geographically isolated areas, where resources are limited, and school bus routes are fewer and farther between. Students in these areas may not have the option to attend the school that’s best for them — or even the ability to get to school consistently.
“Students who have poor transportation access often miss chunks of instruction during their day, or can’t participate in extracurricular activities due to transportation barriers,” said another anonymous survey respondent.
And for the most vulnerable of students — including students experiencing homelessness or in foster care — transportation challenges are even more pronounced. “Our students with special needs have the lowest attendance as a result of transportation issues,” said another anonymous survey respondent. “With the school bus driver shortage, if a bus route is not running, the students do not have a way to attend school. It is so inequitable,”
2. The connection between chronic absenteeism and transportation is also strong.
According to data gathered with this year’s survey, school attendance continues to be a considerable challenge — and transportation is an important contributing factor to this issue.
Two-thirds of survey respondents reported that access to transportation has affected student attendance in their school or district. And nearly the same amount of respondents indicated that their school or district is grappling with chronic absenteeism.
“The buses don’t have drivers. The parents don’t have cars or have to get to work on time. These are some of the things that have been attendance barriers,” said one anonymous respondent.
Data from the survey also suggest that the most vulnerable populations have the highest absenteeism rates. Higher rates of absenteeism were reported by survey respondents for students in foster care, students experiencing homelessness and low-income students than for the general student body. “Students who rely on cab transportation, such as our homeless students, are frequently late or absent,” one survey respondent said.
Nearly 49% of respondents revealed the attendance rate in their school or district has gone down since 2021. The long-term impact of decreasing school attendance is a major concern for many survey respondents, including this anonymous one: “Students are missing so many days of instruction that they are falling behind.”
3. Funding and transportation planning for individualized student needs are major pain points for schools.
Survey respondents were quick to articulate everyday school transportation challenges and related frustrations. Some of the biggest student transportation pain points reported by survey respondents were school transportation funding limitations, industry regulation and policy changes, bus driver shortages, COVID-19 related issues and the logistical difficulties involved in planning individualized transportation to meet the evolving needs of every student.
“We’re underfunded by the state for transportation,” reported Wayne Winters, a director of transportation.
Of course, schools are still getting students into the classroom — even if unconventional workarounds and thinking outside the box are needed.
What are some of the unconventional ways, according to survey respondents, that schools are addressing school bus driver staffing shortages? School districts have staggered school schedules, reduced bus routes, expanded walk boundaries and become less rigid about CDL requirements.
These workarounds aren’t, however, without consequences. Drivers are exhausted, buses are overfilled and school employees are being stretched thin. According to this anonymous respondent, commute times to and from school are being impacted for drivers and students alike: “Due to a lack of drivers, routes can be long with students on the bus for over an hour — and buses are overcrowded.”
4. The school bus driver shortage is impacting more and more schools.
Nearly 9 out of 10 State of School Transportation 2022 survey respondents (88%) indicated that the ongoing bus driver shortage has constrained transportation operations in their school or district. That is a 10% increase since 2021, when 78% of survey respondents reported bus driver-related transportation limitations.
The bus driver shortage isn’t a new issue but it has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The chief factor contributing to it, according to survey respondents, is difficulty in recruiting new bus drivers. Low driver pay, drivers retiring early, health and safety concerns related to COVID-19, low driver morale and the draw of more attractive driving jobs in the private sector are making the hiring of new school bus drivers a complicated challenge to solve.
“Right now, the majority of the people driving our buses are older. Many are retired and doing this to supplement their retirement,” said transportation director Angela Marshall. “There are more health concerns with this generation, and yet they are the ones transporting our younger generations. There need to be incentives for individuals in their 30s to 50s.”
Taylor Perrington Ashley, a transportation supervisor, also touched on challenges related to the bus driver shortage. “Driver morale is a huge issue. Drivers are having to bend over backward to help cover routes or work longer hours,” she said.
5. COVID-19 continues to be a significant concern.
While most schools have returned to classrooms, COVID-19 remains a major issue, according to survey respondents. This is in large part because health and safety-related concerns about the coronavirus are a major contributing factor to the current nationwide school bus driver shortage.
“There is a fear of COVID and other related illnesses that is causing older retired people who would have normally wanted to drive for us to withhold from applying,” said transportation supervisor Taylor Perrington Ashley.
Another respondent agreed, revealing that the inter-related issues of COVID-19 and budgeting are causing transportation issues: “We’re still dealing with residual effects from COVID-19 and budgetary issues that are causing some overcrowding on buses.”
6. Nearly all schools are being deeply affected by staffing shortages.
We’ve already touched on the ongoing school bus driver shortage, which is well documented. But respondents to this year’s survey indicated that schools are facing staffing shortages in their administrative offices and classrooms, too. Almost 95% of respondents, in fact, reported a staffing shortage at their district or school in numerous areas of school operations, including teaching, maintenance and transportation.
Said Josh French, a superintendent: “What keeps me up at night is how to keep schools open and operating during the pandemic and amid staffing shortages.”
At many schools and districts across the country, traditional school employees — like teachers and administrators — are being asked to step in to help in other areas, including driving school buses. Said Bridgitte Hargrove, a director of transportation: “We are having to pull teachers and coaches to assist with transportation.”
Dodi Young, a transportation coordinator, also lamented the staffing shortage — and the effect it’s having on the hardworking and dedicated school employees who are picking up the slack. “Great employees who show up daily are getting worn out from covering other routes and responsibilities,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic — and the increasingly complicated logistics involved in meeting the individual transportation needs of each and every student — have made the vital work that is done by school transportation professionals more challenging than ever. But respondents to our 2022 State of School Transportation survey were quick to point out the positives, too; most notably, the resiliency and tenacity of transportation staff, teachers and other school and district employees. This anonymous summed things up well: “It has really shown us the team spirit that we have within our school district and community.”
Want to learn more about what school transportation professionals had to say about the current state of school transportation today? Read our full 2022 report here.