Bussing Blues: COVID-19, Low Pay, Strains School Districts Quest for School Bus Drivers

As if school districts leaders, teachers, and students were not already overwhelmed with the demands of distance and blended learning models in conjunction with complying with unpopular mask and vaccine mandates, now many are having to contend with a bus driver shortage.
As reported by Education Week, “In a survey taken in March by HopSkipDrive, nearly four-fifths of school transportation professionals including superintendents, directors of transportation, and school transportation staff said the bus driver shortage was a problem for them” and that “[m]ore than half of the school districts with 25,000 to 100,000 students said they believed it could take three months or more to resume normal transportation operations.” 
Hanover Public Schools are in desperate need of school bus drivers Source: schoolbusfleet.com

Part of the problem is the competition for school bus drivers from other sectors, sectors that often pay more and offer more robust benefits. As Danielle Floyd, General Transportation Manager at the School District of Philadelphia put’s it, “We’re competing with FedEx, we’re competing with Amazon.”  

The struggle is particularly acute in large metropolitan areas, such as Chicago. Michael Wagner, CFO of Lakeview Bus Lines, is exasperated, saying, “We’re short drivers. You’re trying everything you can to get people to come to work. They’re not coming to work,” Wagner said. “It’s just tough. I’ve never seen it before, very difficult. The worst conundrum.” Even enticements such as being offered $25/hr and sign-on bonuses of up $4,000 in some districts are not enough to fill all the gaps. “It’s just been unprecedented in what we’ve seen,” Sr. VP of Sales for HopSkipDrive Toby McGraw said. “We have done everything we can.”

In reality, low pay has been a central issue for quite some time. Nicole Schlosser, an editor and writer for School Bus Fleet, points out that “When I started at Monroe Public Schools, drivers received a good hourly wage plus an excellent retirement and full hospitalization. If we had a snow day, drivers would be paid for a certain amount of these days. Now in many school districts they may be offered a 401K and may be offered hospitalization they can’t afford to pay into since they are living paycheck to paycheck.” 

A compounding problem is the number of older school bus drivers who, in light of the pandemic, have decided to call it quits. As one director of school transportation stated, “Older drivers, for fear of health issues, are retiring or leaving in droves. The schools don’t pay enough to get the young workers.” 

Palatine District 15 Director of Transportation Thomas Bramley echoed these concerns, stating, “Of course our elderly statesmen that we really rely on decide to retire eventually and we’re having to replace them,” adding “This year I’ve seen it nearly four-fold.” Veteran school bus driver Kim Hall from Glenarden Md. shares all of these concerns: “The pandemic has done a lot to deter people from applying to be school bus drivers, because of the close quarters that you’re in on a school bus,” Hall said.

Another challenge facing bus drivers is student behavior. Mark Parker, a Syracuse school bus driver, made the following complaints in a recent interview: “I’ve been severely choked. I’ve been stabbed with a pencil. I’ve been called everything you can think of and then some. I’ve been urinated on, and nothing gets done.”  His colleague, Michelle White, paints an even more disturbing picture:

“The students won’t remain in their seats. They do spit in your face. They call us every possible name in the book. They belittle us… call us old, fat, ugly. They try to make fun of our family, let alone the physical treatment, they do punch us, hit us, shove us. It makes a very uncomfortable nervous atmosphere, trying to drive, always having to look in the mirror to keep the bus under control… you have to pull over 5 or 6 times on a run to get control of your bus.”

Parker and White are not alone. As reported by Delawareonline, who interviewed bus drivers who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, “Kindergartners through eighth-graders would get into knockdown, drag-out fights as cars and trucks whizzed around him on the highway. ” When one bus driver was physically threatened by students, he quit out of desperation, saying, “If anything happens to the students [on the bus], we’re responsible for it,” adding, “No one ever stuck up for me.” 

Things have gotten so bad in Chicago that the district is giving money to families to help resolve the problem. As Chalkbeat Chicago reports, “Chicago is giving stranded families $1,000 to cover transportation for the first two weeks of school and reaching out to ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft after a bus driver crunch left about 2,100 students without a ride on the first day of school.”

The situation is likely being worsened by mask mandates, an ongoing point of contention in the United States. Dan Redford, of First Student, a company that contracts bus service for school districts said, “I know I’ve had a lot of drivers that don’t believe in that and don’t want to have to deal with that.”

All of these factors are forcing districts to get creative with solutions. So in addition to increased pay and sign-on bonuses, districts are beginning to explore logistical responses, such as staggering the school day. However, staggering a school day puts a lot of stress on parents, many of whom already find it difficult to get their kids to school while maintaining their own work obligations. To address the demand for more full-time work for bus drivers, some districts are experimenting with providing more full-time employment for drivers who would work as paraprofessionals in a sort of modified split shift. 

Meanwhile, help may be coming from the federal level. According to Fox News, Senate bill 1557, the National Signing Bonus Act sponsored by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., would “redirect the expanded pandemic unemployment benefits from the CARES Act and other COVID-19 relief bills to individuals who get a job as a federal signing bonus equal to 101 percent of two months of unemployment, to be paid over the course of multiple payments.” 

This incentive is being supported by The National School Transportation Association (NSTA) who “applauds Sen. Sasse, and the states of Alabama, Montana, and South Carolina, for taking proactive steps to provide tangible incentives for candidates to enter or re-enter the workforce,” said Carina Noble, senior vice president of communications and external affairs for NSTA.

No matter what districts do, however,  these shortage problems are likely to worsen as the year progresses and new challenges are brought to the surface. “You’re not seeing the full ramification of this because we are just kind of returning to school,” said National School Transportation Association Executive Director Curt Macysyn, who thinks the worst effects of the pandemic-fueled shortages are yet to come. 

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