So far this fall, children heading back to school have faced many obstacles: battles over masks, vaccines, delta-variant surge fears and mental health needs. Now, in many places, there is a last-mile problem — quite literally.
In a new nationwide survey, half of student-transportation coordinators described their school bus driver shortages as either “severe” or “desperate.”
In Chicago this week, 70 bus drivers, about 10% of the workforce, abruptly quit over the district’s new COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to WBEZ’s Sarah Karp. The move left some 2,100 students, a little less than half of them in special education, without a way to get to school.
And in Pittsburgh, the public schools notified families that they are short almost 650 bus seats for the first day of school on Friday.
Curt Macysyn is executive director of the National School Transportation Association, which conducted the survey with two other trade associations. He said the shortages are unprecedented. “This back-to-school period is nothing like the previous periods we’ve seen,” he told NPR. “In previous years, we’ve seen regionalized driver shortages, but nothing to the extent that we’re seeing today.”
He says there are many reasons for the shortage.
Many drivers were furloughed during the COVID-19 school closures in 2020, while others took the chance to retire. Respondents to the survey were most likely to say that the pay they were able to offer was a major factor affecting their ability to recruit drivers. (Salary.com reports the median school bus driver earns $35,421 per year, which varies by region.)
Brand-new bus drivers can’t be hired on the spot like retail or fast-food workers; they need commercial driver’s licenses. A second factor in the shortage, Macysyn pointed out, is that in many places over the past year and a half, departments of motor vehicles were closed or had limited operations, so people couldn’t get their road tests or update their qualifications.
A third concern cited was safety. School buses are full of children, and children under 12 can’t yet be vaccinated against COVID-19. Macysyn says that while measures such as distancing and opening windows seem to be pretty effective, “we certainly understand if folks have those concerns,” especially if they have risk factors.
Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is reportedly talking to ride-share companies like Lyft or Uber, or even paying parents to drive their own children to school. In the meantime, Macysyn says, schools and private school-bus contractors will continue to try to recruit drivers who are civic minded and appreciate the part-time hours and spending time with children. “There’s a segment that just love doing what they do. We say they bleed yellow.”
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