When school doors shut in March amid the growing spread of COVID-19, employee retention was likely on every transportation manager’s mind. Losing drivers and other staff could be a district’s worst nightmare, especially with the current driver (and mechanic) shortage already prompting managers to get creative in recruiting applicants. School bus drivers are valuable employees, especially experienced ones whose familiar faces behind the wheel provide students and their parents with a priceless sense of security.
Motivating employees to stay in a potentially germ-ridden environment such as a school bus might be as simple as enacting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as it applies to the workplace. Employees want safe working conditions, adequate compensation and job security. With many new guidelines and sanitization products geared toward keeping the bus environment healthier, and good drivers secure in the knowledge that they can easily find a new job, the nitty-gritty of having enough drivers on staff might boil down to paying them to stay.
Kris Hafezizadeh, the executive director of transportation for Austin Independent School District in Texas, is happy that his district is a leader in pay and benefits. The transportation department didn’t see anything out of the ordinary in the number of retirements or loss of employees during the break.
“Human resources did a pay analysis of how much drivers were making around the area,” he said. “We’ve raised our starting wages from $15.75 to $17 per hour. In September, our drivers received a check with the new starting pay calculated in, plus retroactive wages. How- ever, when you raise the driver’s pay, then you also have to worry about how the other district employees compare. All other employees received a 2 percent raise.”
Austin ISD also boasts the best benefits in Texas. Compensation includes the employee’s social security and pay for the times when school isn’t in session, such as spring break. “Our benefits package is a very positive influence on attracting and retaining employees,” said Hafezizadeh. “I’m a member of the Council of Great City Schools, and in those meetings as well, I’ve never heard of any other school matching our benefits.”
In September, drivers were taking the buses to various locations, so students had access to Wi-Fi hotspots for virtual learning. Weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., there were over 200 locations where students could log on to keep up with their schoolwork.
“Teams of drivers and monitors staffed the buses to allow for breaks, and so we weren’t leaving the buses unattended in apartment complexes,” said Hafezizadeh.
Motorcoaches Fill in The Gaps
In New York’s Ithaca City School District, Director of Transportation Elizabeth Berner and a local motorcoach company continue to work together to keep wheels turning and drivers busy. The district has long relied on Swarthout Coaches for athletic trips, when regular district bus drivers couldn’t be spared from their routes. Ithaca is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, both of which kept the motorcoaches busy with sports and other events before the pandemic altered college schedules.
Fewer routes also helped lessen the number of drivers needed. “We were going to train some of the Swarthout drivers who didn’t have the ‘S’ endorsement and put them out on routes,” Berner explained. “But we’ve been fortunate with our open interview events, which we advertise on social media and on the radio. With the rising unemployment rate, we had 11 applicants at our last event. Five of those have passed their road test already.”
What about drivers who were wary of working with kids? Berner reassigned them. “For a few drivers who chose not to work directly with students, we’ve accommodated them with duties like school district mail and delivering food,” she added. “One Saturday before school opened in October, 900 textbooks were delivered. What has transpired with the motorcoach drivers has been to use them as a shuttle service between schools, including [Board of Cooperative Educational Services], and with some of our McKinney-Vento students.”
Mark DiGiacomo, Swarthout’s tour and charter manager, is looking forward to the day when the fleet is once again rolling with more charter trips. In the meantime, he is pleased the drivers are busy with school runs.
“Some of our drivers who used to drive [a] school bus don’t live close enough to work a split shift,” he noted. “A couple of them have returned to the schools they used to work for. There were other drivers who, when they found out they needed to take the full road test including the pre-trip to have the ‘S’ endorsement, just didn’t want to go through that process.”
Paid Training Despite School Shut-Down
Rebecca Sykes, the director of transportation for Sargent School District RE-33J in rural southern Colorado, was also concerned about losing her drivers when schools closed last spring. “Last March, I was really scrambling for an idea to keep them paid,” Sykes admitted. “We’re such a small district that we could lose our drivers to a surrounding school in a heartbeat. With only 10 drivers, things can be really tight some days, especially because of most of my drivers also farm. It’s not unusual to have a driver call in because their cows are out.”
Sykes said she knew if she didn’t think creatively, there could be no transportation services offered for the start of the 2020-2021 school year. Using guidelines published by the Colorado Department of Education, Sykes formed a plan that kept her drivers paid and helped boost their driving skills.
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“I put together online classes for them on both the Colorado and the federal rules and regulations,” Sykes explained. “There were 13 modules, so I put those online for my drivers. The trainings covered subjects like child safety restraint systems, student management, and other things we sometimes don’t get to cover in-depth at meetings. I explained that this wasn’t mandatory, but if they needed the money, here was a way for them to earn their regular pay for the rest of the school year.”
Discussion points got conversations going during Zoom calls, especially if a driver got a question wrong and wanted to argue the point. “At the end, we had a Zoom potluck dinner, which was really interesting and fun,” Sykes said laughing.
“Transportation is one of the few areas that can adapt on the fly,” Sykes continued. “We’re used to adapting to changing situations multiple times a day—it’s one of our strengths. I’ll tell you that not all of my drivers were especially computer literate, and I got a lot of phone calls at first because they never had to navigate the internet and get on Zoom. A lot of times they had gotten stuck or were in the wrong place. But they appreciated the opportunity that the school offered them to continue getting paid, which I think helped in having all of them come back this fall.”
Rolling With the Punches
“It’s certainly been a different kind of year for our drivers,” admitted Katrina Morris, transportation director for West Shore Educational Services District in Ludington, Michigan. “We have nine districts that we drive for, although one of those is all-virtual right now. I’ve only had one driver who decided to wait and see what hap- pens. That driver might be back in January, but everyone else was more than ready to get back to work and see the kids. Since we’re transporting fewer students, I’m fully staffed.”
Morris added that because of a reduced ridership, she’s down two routes and has re-assigned those two drivers. Besides helping with some cleaning duties, they are also working as bus aides. “After a six-month break, we have some routes which have students who may need a reminder of how to behave on the bus,” she explained.
Like Berner in Ithaca, New York, Morris said she is also getting new drivers in the door by taking advantage of special events. At the town’s Friday Night Live events, which occur throughout July, the main street is closed for a street fair that her operation uses to recruit new drivers.
“Of course, these events didn’t happen this year, but we have gotten a few drivers with our recruiting,” Morris said. “The chance to educate the general public has been beneficial as well. Those of us who drive for a living know what the job entails and realize that not everyone can to this job.”
Morris uses large signs to explain the learning and background checking involved with becoming a driver. The district’s booth offers fair goers the opportunity to play school bus safety games.
“Not only does it help recruit drivers, but also helps the general public understand all of the responsibility their children’s school bus driver has,” she said. “I think our community is coming to understand that the drivers deserve respect for the training they receive and the huge responsibility they have.”
As for adapting to the new normal presented by COVID-19, Morris said her current drivers have been respectful of the new rules.
“I really give my drivers credit,” Morris commented. “We are all just rolling with these changes, and they are always ready to do whatever it takes. We kept them up to date on changes in our meetings, but since this, all started their attitude has always been, ‘What do we have to do to keep our kids in school?’ This situation has really been an opportunity for transportation departments to shine and say, ‘We got this!’”
Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the November issue of School Transportation News.