CHICAGO — A massive shortage of school bus drivers is causing in a major bump in the road to reopening schools. Without drivers, some bus routes are being canceled, causing tens of thousands of students to be stranded.
One district is paying parents $700 for each child they drive to school themselves. Another is offering families mileage reimbursement.
From Southern California to the Northeast, down to Florida, a nationwide bus driver shortage has reached a crisis level for school districts across the country. It’s the worst some have ever seen.
“I think student transportation is really at a breaking point. We have had a bus driver shortage for years, but COVID has really accelerated those trends,” said Joanna McFarland, CEO and founder of HopSkipDrive, a school ride service that operates a fleet of cars and SUVs in nine states.
The company is a sort of rideshare for kids.
“I think parents feel that this is a local problem, because they feel it with their own school district. But this is something that we're seeing across the country,” McFarland said.
Thousands of bus driver positions remain unfilled as older drivers leave. It’s a simmering problem, say experts, exacerbated by the pandemic.
“The average age of a school bus driver put them close to being in retirement, but also put them in a really vulnerable population for COVID. And so, a number of school bus drivers just retired,” said John Bailey, a non-resident senior fellow who studies transportation at the American Enterprise Institute.
In a March survey by HopSkipDrive, more than 78% of school transportation professionals said the bus driver shortage was a problem for their schools.
Last week, the Pittsburgh Public Schools district announced it would have to delay the opening of school for two weeks due to the transportation crisis. Across Florida, dozens of districts are struggling to staff bus routes, and in Illinois, one company is offering a $3,000 signing bonus for open bus driver positions.
So far, there doesn’t appear to be a coordinated national effort to confront the current driver shortage. Some districts surveyed say it could be months before they get a handle on it.
“There just aren't enough drivers to drive enough buses to pick up enough kids,” said Bailey. “If we want to get kids back in person for in-person learning, we're going to have to address the school bus driver crisis and do it quickly.”
Bailey says there a couple of things that can be done to help mitigate the shortage.
Financial incentives, like hiring bonuses, could help. Governors could use a portion of the American Rescue Plan’s $350 billion to fund these benefits.
Bailey also says there should be an easing of regulatory pathways to bring on more drivers. It’s something that has been log-jammed by the lengthy process of getting a commercial driver’s license, which has only gotten longer due to COVID-19 DMV closures.
“And lastly, we should be looking at innovation,” said Bailey. “There's so many new innovators and entrepreneurs popping up.”
Entrepreneurs like McFarland say it’s time to think outside the box.
“We are feeling the severity of this problem right now, but this is not a problem that is going away. It really is here to stay, and we do need to get creative and really think about what the future of student transportation looks like.”
It’s a question many may be forced to consider in the coming weeks.