Kari Turner, a school bus driver and transportation director for Depew Union Free School District in upstate New York, will never forget the day when a disgruntled parent asked her why she didn’t have a “real job.”
Such disrespect from parents and students are top reasons that student transporters cite for the ongoing nationwide school bus driver shortage. Case in point, 172 of 227 readers responding to a recent School Transportation News survey said student behavior was the most common explanation chosen for the driver shortage. And 100 of those readers also cited negative interactions with parents. (Respondents could choose more than one factor). Studies have shown that the pandemic did indeed have serious impacts on student mental health and behavior problems. And the proliferation of social media doesn’t help, as many drivers and educators have said. Such large societal issues are hard for districts and policymakers to address.
But transportation directors and bus providers say there’s at least one realm where common sense policy change could make bus drivers’ lives easier and help recruit new drivers, with no adverse effects. That would mean reforming the stringent licensing requirements that currently mandate bus drivers go through the same training and certification as long haul truck drivers, including passing an “under-the-hood” test that identifies all engine parts, despite most bus drivers never needing to deal with the engine.
“They are training us like we are truck drivers, not bus drivers,” said Linda Forster, transportation supervisor at Clarence Central School District in upstate New York, which is facing a shortage of about 20 drivers.
A Specific CDL:
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration allows state agencies to offer school districts waivers from the under-the-hood requirement for school bus drivers, and at least nine states at this writing had done so. But those waivers have only been temporary, with the current two-year extension expiring in November 2024.The federal government first allowed states to offer a three-month waiver in early 2022, to help alleviate the driver shortage in the wake of the pandemic.
The National School Transportation Association has requested a five-year waiver and also proposed a school-bus-only CDL that does not include under-the-hood inspections.
That’s necessary, according to NSTA, in part because the current waiver doesn’t cover drivers traveling between states, a common occurrence for schools near state lines or driving field trips and athletic teams.
“Removing the under-the-hood requirement alleviates a process that is mostly not utilized in student transportation,” said NSTA Executive Director Curt Macysyn, noting that it does not eliminate the requirement for drivers to perform pre trip inspections. “The physical act of lifting the hood and then identifying engine components has been intimidating for many school bus driver candidates. Some candidates don’t even get to the behind the wheel test before they wash out, or they feel the overall process of qualifying and getting the license is too long.”
In 2021, the Pennsylvania state legislature adopted a resolution to study and address the state’s bus driver shortage, with the resulting advisory committee report recommending adoption of the school bus only CDL. The report notes that more than 3,000 drivers were lost between 2013 and 2021.
Eighty two percent of 230 respondents to the same STN survey said a school bus driver specific CDL should be implemented.
“School buses are inspected twice a year, and there are rigorous ongoing OEM requirements we all meet. If a bus does have a breakdown, a mechanic is usually no more than 25 minutes away,” said Shawn McGlinchey, president of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association and vice president of risk management at Krapf Bus, a family-owned provider in the state.
He added the “under-the-hood requirement” is a barrier to bring people in because it’s overwhelming.
“They’re not mechanics,” he continued. Meanwhile, Macysyn added that because most school bus drivers are not allowed to leave students unattended on the bus, they should not undertake repairs to the vehicle either. “In short, we are losing bus driver candidates to a mostly obsolete requirement,” he said.
In comments filed in response to the waiver extension proposal last year, the Iowa Department of Transportation noted that it had instituted the waiver and found it bureaucratically burdensome. The Wisconsin School Bus Association and Augusta School District, meanwhile, noted that the waivers did help with recruitment of drivers.
McGlinchey said that even making the waiver permanent “is not a silver bullet” to get more drivers. “But everything from helping with student management to offering training to waiving that under-the-hood requirement, every little bit helps,” he said.
Macysyn added that removing the requirement is also important for safety and environmental reasons. “Having more passenger vehicles on the road to take students to school is not environmentally desirable, and statistically, having parents and students drive to school is far less safe than taking a school bus,” he shared. “With the deployment of more electric school buses, the under-the-hood requirement will become completely obsolete. School bus manufacturers actually do not want the untrained under the hood of the vehicle. It would be good for the state driver’s license agencies to get in front of this issue because they will eventually have to adapt. Any delay causes more potential drivers to [fall out] by the system not being proactive and addressing this situation now.”
Serious Shortages, Serious Effects:
The School Transportation News survey found that 229 districts/companies reported a total shortage of almost 2,237 drivers, an average of over 10 school bus drivers down per operation. That mirrors the findings of a 2021 National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) survey that found more than half of respondents reported a shortage as either severe or desperate.
Districts report foregoing field trips, revising routes, staggering start times, and sharing buses with other districts among the measures to deal with the shortage.
“You have to rearrange a lot of bus routes, you have to do it on the fly,” said Depew Union’s Turner. “There are times we’ve said, sure you can do a field trip, but [we] have to break it up into two days. There’s a limit on how many buses can go on any given day because we don’t have enough drivers. It’s just the reality of life.”
Forster at Clarence Central reports similar experiences. “We’ve had to cancel trips. The biggest effect is on athletics,” she said, noting that the district is short about 20 drivers, plus it has 13 contract drivers it would like to bring back in-house. “We used to have a bus run in the afternoon that could do athletic trips. We just don’t have that any-more. You need them somewhere else.”
“Today’s a good day, I didn’t have to drive,” she noted in late May. “All of my office staff and mechanics are usually out driving.”Forster said that creating a 10-minute gap in start times between elementary and high schools would help coordinate busing, but teacher unions oppose such changes. “The buses are packed. You can’t rob Peter to pay Paul anymore,” she continued. “We put puzzle pieces together every day to get through. It’s very stressful for administrators and employees.”
She said her operation had about 100 drivers when she started at the district four years ago. Now, there are only 73. “We’ve done radio advertising, in papers and the Penny Savers, we’ve sent out postcards to families, we’ve tried recruiting mothers if they’re standing out there with their children,” she said. But with little luck.
The bus driver shortage has been ongoing for decades. But the health concerns and other disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic have made the shortage worse, as almost half the respondents noted in the survey. And low unemployment since the pandemic has also made it harder to recruit and retain drivers. In the School Transportation News survey, two thirds of respondents noted “easier jobs available for same/more money” as a continued challenge to hiring new school bus driver applicants.
Turner said that three quarters of her district’s drivers are over the age of 65, many of them having taken up the job after retiring from other professions. “I have a computer software engineer, a retired building project engineer, a retired post office employee, UPS delivery driver, truck driver. I have people with serious degrees here,” she shared. “They don’t have to do this, but they want to give back to the community and have some kind of impact on young people.”
But she said the stress on drivers, including student behavior, means that it is rarely the rewarding experience drivers had hoped for. Media reports have chronicled how parents are more demanding than in past eras and more likely to side with their children rather than adult professionals be they teachers, sports referees, or bus drivers in disputes, sometimes even invoking legal threats and violence. “We’re sitting ducks,” said Turner. “We’re strapped into the seat in front of the bus. If you have an irate parent and you open those doors, it’s terrifying.”
The part-time nature of the job, lack of benefits, and relatively low pay at many districts also fuels the driver shortage. Fifty-eight percent of 227 survey respondents cited low pay, 37 percent the lack of benefits and 53 percent the part-time schedule as reasons for the driver shortage.
It is difficult “impossible,” in Turner’s words for districts to find or approve the funds needed to bolster bus driver compensation. Many therefore see the revised CDL and more outreach as the most realistic ways to ease the driver shortage.
Krapf Bus has hosted recruitment fairs that McGlinchey said have yielded new job applicants. He said he’s hopeful that even as a part-time job, people will see school bus driving as a desirable and meaningful occupation.
“It’s a great part-time position especially if you have children in the same school district,” he said. “The educational day doesn’t start without the yellow school bus.” Forster, likewise, said she hopes barriers can be removed so drivers can appreciate the upsides. “It’s a very rewarding job for someone to do,” she added. “The children on the bus become like your children.”
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the July 2023 issue of School Transportation News.
Related: Ohio Superintendent Obtains CDL to Address School Bus Driver Shortage
Related: Student Transport Lowers School Bus CDL Training Platform Cost for Limited Time
Related: Seeing Clearly During a Driver Shortage
Related: Have you had to get creative with your operation’s routing due to the school bus driver shortage?