As Schools Reopen, Districts Are Desperate for Bus Drivers

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School officials are getting creative, offering bonuses and other incentives to address a driver shortage that the pandemic made worse.

Many school bus drivers retired or quit, fearing exposure to the coronavirus. Others were furloughed or got sick themselves.
Credit...Anna Watts for The New York Times

Christine Hauser

Aug. 27, 2021, 9:32 a.m. ET

As schools return to in-person learning with masks and social distancing, some districts are facing another challenge: getting students to class.

Thousands of school bus drivers were furloughed, fell ill or quit as classes moved online last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, school and union officials said. Now districts across the country are trying to lure them back, offering signing bonuses and juggling schedules and bus routes to make up for the shortfall. One school in Delaware is even paying parents to drive their children to school.

“There are reports of shortages across the country,” said Joanna McFarland, the chief executive of HopSkipDrive, which works with districts on transportation solutions. “It is the worst that we have seen in a very long time, if not ever.”

Driver shortages have been an issue for years. After getting a commercial license, some drivers are lured to delivery services and trucking companies, forgoing the split shifts and unruly children that can be part of the job of driving a school bus.

The pandemic made things worse. Many school bus drivers retired or quit out of fear of becoming exposed to the virus in an enclosed space, a risk some new drivers were also reluctant to take. Some quit over mask mandates, while others were furloughed or got sick, further diminishing the pool.

As the start of the 2021-22 academic year approached, officials sounded the alarm. HopSkipDrive, which conducted a national survey of 1,186 transportation and district officials, said that efforts to prepare for the coming school year would be hobbled by the shortages. The National School Transportation Association, which represents bus companies, warned this year that new drivers would not be able to fill the shortfall caused by furloughs and the loss of drivers from the work force.

The training of replacements is not keeping pace. It can take up to eight weeks for a driver to get a commercial license, the association said. Additional training is required for drivers who transport children with special needs and behavioral issues.

The nation’s 13,000 school districts spend about $22 billion on student transportation every year, according to the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents drivers across the United States and Canada. That pays for about half a million yellow buses that ferry more than 25 million children to and from schools, the union said.

“Covid came and it was the perfect storm,” said John Costa, the international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

“It is a big problem,” he added. “Some had to find other jobs and some retired. Now, 18, 19 months later, schools are coming back” and the drivers “are not there.”

Districts are trying to make the job of driving a school bus more attractive, offering signing bonuses and organizing recruiting events to entice new drivers. First Student, a school bus transportation contractor, offered $4,000 to new drivers in Helena, Mont. The company also staged recruiting events that it called “Big Bus, No Big Deal,” during which people were invited to test-drive the massive yellow buses, without dozens of children on board.

“Once you get up and get in the seat where you sit up high, we have the trainers that are going to ride with them and show them that it’s not hard to drive a school bus — it’s actually pretty easy,” Dan Redford, a First Student safety manager, told KTVH-TV of Helena last month. The job has been popular with retirees who want to supplement their income and do not mind working split shifts, he said.

Eastside Charter School, a grade school in Wilmington, Del., is paying families $700 for each child they drive to and from school. So far, parents of about 180 students have taken advantage of the incentive, and the number is expected to rise to 250, said Aaron Bass, the school’s chief executive officer. As many as 480 Eastside students need transportation, but the school has only half the bus drivers it needs, he said.

“We are looking at this as a time to be innovative,” Mr. Bass said. “Find innovation in the midst of chaos and crisis.”

In Georgia, the Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools, which is 114 drivers short, has cut bus routes and prioritized busing for students who attend its schools, leaving families with children in alternative and charter schools to find their own way.

The district is offering $4,000 to new and returning drivers, along with guarantees for more work hours. Savannah is home to one of the nation’s busiest seaports, so the district has always had tough competition for drivers with commercial licenses, said Paul Abbott, the executive director of transportation.

“Covid has completely exacerbated the issue,” Mr. Abbott said. “It is going to be a long, slow climb out of this. We are conducting interviews like crazy.”

Pittsburgh has increased its signing bonus to $3,500 and is grouping multiple schools on each bus route to cope with a shortage of about 400 drivers, according to Diane Stambaugh, president of Local 1743 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

“Nobody is applying,” she said. “And because of Covid they could not have classes, and a lot of people retired, and a lot of people just flat out quit.”

More than half of the respondents to the HopSkipDrive survey, which included school districts with enrollments of 25,000 to 100,000, expected that it would be at least three months before transportation operations returned to normal.

In New York City, which has the nation’s largest public school system, the pandemic was the latest hardship for union drivers who have weathered other challenges in recent years, including a strike in 2013. Michael Cordiello, the president of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said that 244 drivers had retired so far this year, and that only 220 had been hired, the first time he could remember such a gap.

“We actually have more people retiring than have been hired,” he said. “Covid has just blown it out of the water.”

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