(The Hill) — The wheels on the bus are going nowhere.
From California to New York, school districts struggled their first week back as parents and students tried to navigate delays and cancellations caused by school bus driver shortages.
While teacher shortages have been making national headlines, less attention has been paid to the deficit of bus drivers, which in some cases has shut down entire districts for days at a time.
The problems are endless, according to experts, who say the industry is facing a changing workforce, licensing issues, trouble with student behavior and obstacles with pay and scheduling.
“The school bus driver shortage actually has been going on for quite a few years. It is more acute now than it was prior to the pandemic, but there has been steadily this issue growing across the country. And I think there are a lot of things that contribute to it,” said Molly McGee-Hewitt, executive director and CEO of the National Association for Pupil Transportation.
In Kentucky, Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio posted a video last week on social media after the first day of class ended in a “transportation disaster,” with some of the district’s 96,000 students not making it home until 10 p.m. Even changing bus routes and start times weren’t enough to solve the issue.
The event caused Pollio to close down schools for the rest of the week while officials figure out how to avoid a redo of the disaster.
One of the common factors in the nationwide problem is a changing workforce, with the old part-time driver employment for stay-at-home moms and older individuals no longer cutting it.
“We used to be a majority female workforce. I’d say 25- to 50-age band. Then we also had a group of retirees that were using this as kind of their retirement job to keep them busy getting out of work,” Don DeVivo, past chair of the American Bus Association, said.
Now, the driver workforce is moving to young minority males, according to DeVivo, which brings another key issue into play: commercial driver’s license (CDL) regulations.
“We’re seeing is they’re using the school bus as an entry point to get that CDL and to get some driving experience. So we’re seeing the younger minority males entering the workforce for the CDL driving, but they’re not staying there,” he said.
Instead, they are moving to companies that have more full-time jobs, with better pay and benefits. The average school bus driver currently only makes a little over $40,000 a year, and that’s only when the district can offer it as a full-time position.
In its “2022 State of School Transportation Report,” HopSkipDrive found 88 percent of school transportation experts and school district leaders believe their bus driver shortages have hurt their operation, and the most difficult aspect cited in the issue was recruiting new drivers for the field.
And in addition to low pay, the drivers are facing another headache common to teachers: student misbehavior, which has increased since the pandemic following the return from remote learning — but doesn’t always wait for the classroom.
During the pandemic, McGee-Hewitt says some schools found creative solutions to keep school bus drivers employed while other industries had to shut down.
“We have to really congratulate school districts who use their bus drivers and their buses to deliver food to kids, deliver curriculum, and even school buses were moving hotspots for students to be able to use the internet so during the pandemic, we were able to keep people employed to a degree because we were utilizing our services to support our distance or remote learning,” she said.
But now in post-pandemic times, it has been more of a struggle.
“Well, now we’re post-pandemic, the world is kind of shifting back right to a degree and again, the same issues that kind of impacted us before. People wanting more salaries and people wanting more hours,” McGee-Hewitt said. “And also the competition for these folks because today, Amazon and many of the delivery services have opened in most communities and Amazon pays more than it is to be a bus driver in most school districts.”