Bus driver shortage is the newest challenge facing US schools

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HELENA, Mont. A school district in Montana is dangling $ 4,000 in bonuses inviting people to test large yellow school buses in hopes of luring them into a job that schools will find difficult to fill when the kids return to face-to-face lessons.

One school district in Delaware offered parents $ 700 to arrange their own transportation, and one district in Pittsburgh delayed classes and said hundreds more children would have to walk to school. Schools in the United States are offering recruitment bonuses, providing the training required to obtain a commercial driver’s license, and increasing hourly wages to attract more drivers.

The shortage of bus drivers makes it difficult to start a school year already plagued by the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, contentious differences of opinion about masking obligations and the challenge of catching up on educational ground that was lost in the course of the pandemic last year.

The shortage of drivers isn’t new, but a labor shortage in many sectors and the ongoing effects of the pandemic have made it worse, with around half of the workforce over 65 and more susceptible to the virus, said Joanna McFarland, co-founder and CEO of school bus companies HopSkipDrive tracking problems with school buses.

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Your company conducted a survey in March that found that nearly 80% of the counties that responded had difficulty finding enough bus drivers.

“It’s really at a breaking point,” said McFarland.

First Student, a company that provides bus services to school districts across the county, held test driving events called “Big Bus, No Big Deal” this summer in Montana and many other states to give people a chance to try their hand at driving. The hope was that it could remove a barrier for those who might otherwise be interested in getting children to and from school safely, said Dan Redford of First Student in Helena, Montana.

“We actually set up a closed circuit at the fairgrounds and invited the public to come in and see that driving a big bus isn’t a big deal,” said Redford. “They’re actually pretty easy to drive. You sit high. You have a lot of views. ”

In Helena, the company has 50 bus drivers and needs 21 more before classes begin on Aug. 30, a shortage Redford described as unprecedented.

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Helena’s event was low in attendance, but demos similar to a recent one in Seattle attracted more applications.

The Delta variant also prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend the wearing of universal masks in schools, especially for children who are too young to be vaccinated. But there is a wave of violent anti-mask protests in many areas.

First Student lost some Helena drivers to mask demands on buses, Redford said.

“I know I’ve had a lot of drivers who don’t believe in it and don’t want to put up with it,” said Redford.

The school bus headache comes at a particularly difficult time for parents.

Monica Huff was quarantined at home with a likely case of COVID-19 on Wednesday when she learned that her 14-year-old son’s school bus had not turned up at its suburban Houston stop.

“I was worried. I was afraid. … I didn’t know where it was,” she said. She felt particularly helpless because she couldn’t get it herself without exposing others to the risk of infection.

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Eventually she learned that the elementary school bus driver had picked up the older children and brought them to high school. She was relieved to learn that he had arrived at school, though his late start time was also an issue as he is still catching up a bit in his studies after falling behind on distance learning early last year.

“This year there is enough to worry about when people get angry about masks,” she said.

Republican Governor Greg Abbott initially banned Texas school districts from requiring masks, but successful legal challenges caused the Texas Education Agency to suspend enforcement of its ban on Thursday while challenges go through the courts.

In Florida, many of the largest school districts are using managers as drivers and implementing other transitional measures to get students into class early in the school year, against a nationwide political battle over masks between Republican Governor Ron DeSantis to ban masks mandates and districts believe they are necessary to keep children safe.

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President Joe Biden on Wednesday ordered his Secretary of Education to review possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other health measures aimed at protecting students from COVID-19.

Economic forces also play a role in the shortage of bus drivers. A commercial driver’s license is required to drive a school bus, which can take weeks to obtain. And people who have them often find higher paid work that doesn’t have to split the day for pick up and drop off. The demand for commercial drivers is only increasing with the pandemic-induced increase in online shopping, said McFarland of HopSkipDrive.

But working with kids driving a bus can be a rewarding career, and hours work well for home-based parents or retirees looking to supplement their income, contractors say. There is no obligation to work at night, on weekends or on public holidays. Field trips and sporting events can add more hours for those who want them, First Student’s Redford said.

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His company allows bus drivers whose children are at least 1 year old to ride the bus with them while working, saving daycare costs, Redford said.

A Michigan school district could find enough drivers by guaranteeing they could work enough hours in the district, including janitorial or hospitality, to qualify for health insurance, said Dave Meeuwsen, executive director of the Michigan Association of Pupil Transportation.

In the suburbs of Salt Lake City, the Canyons School District was in dire straits about a month ago. About 30 drivers were absent, so the workforce would have been too small to occupy all of their routes, said spokesman Jeff Haney. Administrators said office workers might need to get their commercial drivers license just to get all of the kids to and from school.

“It was very alarming and very worrying,” he said.

The district also increased the pay of bus drivers and offered a program to help people acquire their commercial licenses. In the weeks since then, the number of applications has risen. If they continued to come at the same pace, the district should be staffed for the year, Haney said.

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Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in any way without permission.


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