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Bus driver shortages are already having real day-to-day impacts on students heading into the 2023-24 school year.
The issue led to a calamitous evening on the first day of school for students at Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky’s largest district. Severe bus delays caused some students to get home as late as nearly 10 p.m. on that Aug. 9 night, the Courier Journal reported.
Consequently, the district canceled classes for up to four days, and JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio issued an apology in a video message to the school community as a whole. Pollio called canceling classes “the most difficult decision of my superintendent career.”
During the summer, a handful of other big districts planned to pivot to using public transportation in anticipation of bus shortages. Chicago Public Schools, for instance, is giving out free passes for eligible students to use the city’s public transit system. CPS is providing one parent or guardian with a free city transit pass if the student needs an adult to accompany them. Additionally, CPS is prioritizing district-run transportation for students with disabilities and those in temporary housing.
Amid the ongoing bus driver shortage in Hawaii, the state’s education department also announced — prior to the devastating wildfires on Maui — that several high schools will have to “rely heavily” on county bus systems for school transportation throughout the 2023-24 school year.
Bus driver shortages are a widespread and national problem, said Molly McGee-Hewitt, executive director and CEO of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, a student transportation trade association. But unfortunately, the issue is so large and diverse — “much like the teacher shortage” — that there “isn’t one answer” to improve the recruitment and retention of bus drivers, McGee-Hewitt added.
In fact, districts are seeing most likely to see staffing shortages among teaching and school bus driving positions, according to a recent survey of over 220 districts by HopSkipDrive, a rideshare company providing transportation for children and older adults. Some 92% of respondents surveyed this year said the driver shortage “constrained” their operations, and 39% said they consequently had to cut down on transportation services.
Districts said the top factors contributing to these shortages were challenges with recruiting new drivers, competition with the private industry, an uptick in drivers retiring and insufficient wages.
While the bus driver shortage may be acute right now, it can't solely be blamed on COVID, according to McGee-Hewitt.
"This is an issue that has been going on for quite some time,” she said. “The competition for our drivers is higher today than it was before, and I do think that that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, but I don’t think it’s just the result of the pandemic.”
Here’s what school transportation experts suggest district leaders should consider as they look for ways to ameliorate these continuing bus driver shortages.
Hold stay interviews — to help with recruitment
As companies like Amazon hire delivery drivers for much higher wages with more hours, the competition can be tough for school districts, McGee-Hewitt said.
The school bus driver candidate pool is in fact improving this year, although “it’s still not where it really needs to be,” said Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, a membership organization for school bus contractors. "But at least we’re starting to get some traction with respect to getting new drivers into the system,” Macysyn said.
Both transportation experts and school leaders say recruitment is often more challenging than retention.
To improve driver retention, some districts are holding stay interviews to see what keeps them there, Macysyn said. Districts then use those interview results to guide decisions on how to make the job more desirable, he added.
To retain more drivers, Macysyn said that while higher wages certainly help, it's also about “providing a comfortable work atmosphere” and “ensuring the workplace environment remains comfortable and productive for all our drivers.”
Put one person in charge
One person should be solely “in charge” of the recruitment and retention of drivers, Macysyn said. “No longer can it be an individual with split responsibilities. This has got to remain a focus, because it’s such a high priority,” he said. Otherwise, Macysyn said schools will ultimately suffer.
For Macysyn, it’s important districts hire a person who is dedicated to finding and retaining bus drivers, because it’s a year-round effort.
As staff look into recruitment strategies, Macysyn said they should keep in mind that the industry typically works best through word-of-mouth. Typical candidates are retirees, sports coaches or even former administrators, he said.
Recruiters should also be aware of the barriers candidates face, he said. For instance, they need to get a commercial driver’s license, which can include testing requirements on hood and engine repairs.
“One thing in particular that we’ve been pushing for a couple years is removal of an under the hood testing requirement,” Macysyn said. “Our folks do not repair the vehicle on the side of the road. They can’t leave the students.”
While Macysyn noted pay isn’t the only focus when recruiting and retaining bus drivers, it is certainly an important one. A 2022 RAND Corp. report found that 30% of 291 surveyed district leaders said they increased bus driver pay or benefits during the 2021-22 school year. But as the obligation deadline for federal COVID-19 funding is just a year away, such pay boosts may become less likely.
Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District provides bonuses of $1,000 to $3,500 for new drivers, with the amount varying by whether they already have a commercial driver's license, said Tony Skala, the district’s transportation director. The bonuses have “somewhat made a difference,” he said.
Another deterrent for prospective drivers is the gap in the middle of the day between shifts, McGee-Hewitt said. One solution some districts are exploring is giving drivers more hours by hiring them for instructional aide, food service or other positions, she added. But that’s still on a case-by-case basis, she said.
Tighten efficiency of routes
The Boulder Valley district has nearly 28,000 students and was short 28 drivers just to cover daily routes ahead of the new school year, according to Skala. The district has faced driver shortages for years, but has been mostly successful in the last year or so at avoiding canceled bus routes, Skala said.
The district has really tried to focus on the efficiency of a route to steer away from completely suspending transportation services for any students. Technology can help schools and districts figure this out as well, Skala said.
If schools have to cut routes, the onus then falls on parents — and student attendance can suffer, he said.
“I’m hoping that we can continue to not have to cancel routes, but that’s the impact,” Skala said. “The impact is it ends up on the parents having to figure out a way to get their students to school without a bus and that does have the potential impact of students showing up late, not being able to attend because parents can’t find a way.”
Technology can also help districts directly share any routing issues with parents through apps and school communication portals, McGee-Hewitt said. Some school buses use tablets requiring students to log in and out to record when they’re on the bus, which allows parents to track the route, she said.
The technology “is much better today than it was even five years ago, and there’s been a huge push to try to make sure that we’re communicating clearly and effectively with the public,” McGee-Hewitt said.