Editor's note: The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Bill Kurts' name.
Weeks into the school year, rural school districts remain especially hard hit by the national school bus driver shortage that gained widespread attention late this summer.
Bus routes have been shortened or extended, drivers are working longer hours, and in some cases administrators, mechanics and even teachers are climbing behind the wheel. Some districts have offered hiring bonuses, increased drivers’ wages and paid families to bring kids to school. Rural education experts worry the shortage will intensify inequities, leaving rural children further behind academically.
“In many rural areas, there are high rates of poverty and a lot of rural families might not have transportation themselves, so if the buses aren’t running, the kids literally have no other option to get to school,” said Mara Tieken, an associate professor at Bates College in Maine and a rural education expert. “It might mean more isolation, more online learning, and rural kids may or may not be able to access it given the digital divide.”
School officials say many older drivers retired early rather than risk getting sick. Vaccine mandates have prompted some drivers to quit and dissuaded some would-be drivers from applying for the job. Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to interrupt schedules.
Nearly two weeks ago, Barbara Case, superintendent of the General Brown Central School District in rural upstate New York, received a phone call that two bus drivers had been exposed to COVID-19. She had difficulty reaching substitutes, and other drivers needed time off.
Case—uncertain whether the students who ride those buses could get to school the following day—thought about closing schools and reverting to online learning, she said.
“We finagled the schedule enough to make it, so we didn’t have to go remote for a day or week,” Case said. “I dodged a bullet [that day]. Luckily, the driver didn’t have to quarantine. ... But I was dangling by a thread.”
Currently, the district runs 18 routes, four of which don’t have permanent bus drivers. Substitute bus drivers cover three of those routes, and the other route is split among the mechanics, mechanics’ helpers and the assistant transportation director, Case said.
The staffing needs at General Brown mirror the crisis facing other districts nationwide. For some schools, the shortage of bus drivers has been catastrophic, according to a joint survey published in August by the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation and the National School Transportation Association.
About 78% of respondents including school administrators, transportation directors, bus drivers mechanics and other managers said the shortage is getting “much worse” or “a little worse,” while 51% described their shortage as “severe” or “desperate.” Sixty-four percent of respondents in rural Southern states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma reported much more difficulty in retaining drivers, a higher percentage than respondents in the Northeast, Midwest and West.
Schools in every region have had to either extend and combine bus routes, alter bell times or remove bus services altogether during the pandemic, said Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, the leading organization for school bus transportation officials.
Survey participants cited licensing concerns, availability of benefits and insufficient work hours as hurdles for recruitment. And COVID-19 vaccination requirements in some districts cause drivers who are vaccine hesitant or resistant to quit or not apply at all, Macysyn said. In Connecticut, for example, several drivers threatened to walk off the job in late September instead of complying with a vaccine mandate, reported the Hartford Courant. Despite this, most schools in that state reported no major driver absences.
“Our folks aren't any different than other folks out there,” Macysyn said. “To the extent that there’s a level of vaccine hesitancy in the general population, that's also going to make its way into the school bus driver pool.”
No Quick Fix
Alice, a bus driver in South Carolina’s rural low country, drives an hour to work every morning. She picks up her bus keys around 6:15 a.m. and heads to her first stop at 6:30 a.m. (Alice is used as a pseudonym, as the bus driver feared retribution for talking with a reporter.) Since the pandemic, she’s taken on additional routes. Because her stops are so far apart now, she doesn’t finish her last drop-off until 6:30 p.m., returning home around 7:30 p.m. In between each route, she sanitizes the bus, and sometimes she gets lost navigating new routes.
“Whether it’s raining, or I don’t feel good, the kids and their parents rely on me to get them home,” Alice said. “It’s a lot of stress. Some days, [bus drivers] come home, and we just sit there, and we cry.”
For years, Alice said, she and her colleagues did not make a livable wage; only recently have they received pay increases. The lack of respect for the profession has caused drivers she knows to leave or find other jobs, she said. Alice sticks around because of the kids.
“I was out on quarantine, and when I got back a little girl gave me a piece of paper and it said, ‘I missed you when you were out. Love you,’” Alice recalled. “That is bigger than any check in the world, because evidently I did or said something that she felt safe enough to say that to me. And that's what it's about. Those kids are our future.”
Bill Kurts, transportation director for Lexington County School District One in Lexington, South Carolina, likewise said many drivers love the job. Over his 25-year career in transportation, Kurts has worked several positions, including driving buses, but said this is the worst shortage he has seen. Two weeks ago, 11 drivers were out for COVID-19-related and other health reasons, he said.
Kurts’s district this summer increased bus driver pay by 5%, in addition to a $1 increase per hour. And the school board is now considering a one-time $1,000 bonus for full-time employees and $500 for part-time employees, Kurts said, hoping the extra money attracts drivers. However, the incentives don’t seem to be working.
“Everyone’s hiring and can’t find people,” Kurts said. “We’re 36 [drivers] short, and all we can do is double up, sometimes, triple and quadruple routes.”
It is unclear how many bus driver positions are unfilled nationwide, but districts in every state are feeling the effects, according to news reports and state education departments that responded to a Stateline request.
In Idaho, the Gooding School District closed for a week this month because of a shortage of qualified bus drivers. In Maryland, about two dozen bus drivers recently went on strike and left students without transportation to schools for two days. Several drivers threatened to walk off the job in Connecticut. And in Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker announced in September that about 250 National Guard members would be available to take students to school.
The School District of Philadelphia offered $1,500 a year to families willing to drive their children to school rather than take the school bus. A Delaware school district likewise offered to pay parents $700 per child for the year to get kids to school. In Virginia and Maryland, school leaders are hosting bus driver job fairs. In Montana, a school district provided $4,000 bonuses for drivers and invited people to test drive buses.
In Case’s district in New York, the administration provided $500 referral stipends and up to a $2,500 bonus, depending on whether the driver had a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, with a school bus endorsement prior to employment.
To become a bus driver, candidates must pass exams to acquire a CDL, including additional tests to get the school bus endorsement added to the CDL, and undergo a criminal background check, according to American Student Transportation, a family-owned and operated bus company. The process can take from two weeks to six months, Macysyn said. As the pandemic wears on, some school bus operations could remain at severely low levels because of how long it takes potential candidates to get certified, he added.
“We’ve had very productive conversations with the [Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration] … and [we hope] it manifests itself in a school bus-only CDL,” he said. “It would more so mirror the role and responsibility of the school bus driver than the current broad base CDL, which folks get for driving a trash truck or for long haul trucking.”
For superintendents such as Case, every day feels like a scramble to determine how to educate students and keep them safe.
“It’s a very big burden for school officials to navigate these very murky waters, and I’ll be honest, very difficult,” Case said. “It feels worrisome. It feels sometimes chaotic, but you make the best decision you can when you look at all the situations you’re facing.”