Throughout the pandemic, school districts adapted week-by-week to the transportation needs in remote, hybrid and in-person learning models. With talk of bolstering summer school programs and potential increases in fall ridership comes the familiar challenge of finding enough bus drivers to cover needed routes.
With $122 billion available for schools via the American Rescue Plan comes support for summer and after-school enrichment programs to address pandemic impacts on education. New programming will likely require additional busing. Even if funding is proportionately allocated to transport students as school programming increases—and whether the money comes depends on how the state and school districts divvy up federal funding—finding new drivers remains one of the industry’s greatest challenges.
“We’re in the early stages of trying to orchestrate this,” said Larry Albert, transportation director for Orange County Schools in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Toward the end of April, Albert said he was looking at a six-week summer school schedule with full-day and half-day options. But a big question remained: How many students would sign up and need transportation?
A survey of 100 school districts released around the same time by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found more than half of schools responding did not communicate any plans for summer programming, while 12 percent only offered a broad vision.
As the 2020-2021 school year closes, transportation departments across the U.S. are also scrambling to maintain routes for fluctuating needs with an ever-decreasing pool of drivers.
“That would totally be a shot in the dark at this time,”Albert said, when asked how many drivers he would need to cover the summer programs.
When the district opened for in-person learning in the spring, Albert said ridership was less than half of normal, but his routes had increased to keep students social distanced.
“We were skating on thin ice all year,” Albert explained. “Everybody was going through the same struggles with the pandemic. Any given day, we lost two, three, four drivers due to close contact type stuff and having to quarantine.”
A School Transportation News survey conducted in February 2020 found that 80 percent of school districts surveyed were short drivers. When the pandemic fully took hold a month later, many drivers who were on the brink of retirement opted to hang up their keys.
Schools that ran remote when the school year started in August employed drivers to deliver meals and supplies, but overall need severely decreased. Schools that opened for in-person learning increased routes and suddenly employed frontline workers, adding new risk to an already difficult job. A survey conducted by STN in April found that 82 percent of readers said they need more drivers on staff.
“If we could clone them, it would be great,” said Zada Stamper, transportation director of Laurel Public Schools in Yellowstone County, Montana. “[In April] we were short like three to four drivers.”
On a typical day, Laurel Public Schools moves 500 of its 2,100 students on 12 routes with nine drivers. The longest route runs 50 miles into the hills and back. When left with six drivers, Stamper said she doubled up on routes and called parents to tell them the students would be late.
“Our parents are understanding. There are some routes we just run late,” Stamper said. “The sad thing is [that] it seems like everybody is accepting the fact that my bus is going to be late to school today. It’s not like, ‘Oh, hey you know, maybe I do have two days a week I can drive a bus.’”
With an average driver age of 65 years old, Stamper said retirement is her biggest competitor.
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“I have two drivers that were going to retire last year, but you know, I’m a really good beggar,” she said.
The district does not offer benefits to part-time drivers but is considering doing so, on top of paying $15.49 an hour and a $1,000 bonus.
“It’s not that we couldn’t afford it. If we could find drivers, we can pay you,” Stamper said. “Obviously, it’s not just in our district, it’s every single district I talked to in Montana.”
While shifting demands from the pandemic didn’t help, the underlying issues existed before schools went remote in 2020 and is likely to remain even as demand increases.
“We were short people before COVID-19 came,” said Kris Allen, transportation supervisor for Wasatch County School District in Herber, Utah. The district opened in August and remained open all school year, transporting 6,000 students on 49 buses.
Allen combined routes so the district’s 38 drivers could cover more ground, but she said she’s still 12 drivers short.
“We know that there’s been a shortage forever, so how do you fix something that was broken before? You guys throw money at it? What’s going to attract drivers? What’s going to be different?” Allen asked.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the June 2021 issue of School Transportation News.