We are in the beginning stages of trying to get our economy to rise like a phoenix from the pandemic, but it is taking time. And the shortage of both goods and employees is stifling our progress. The inability to procure these things quickly is creating a trickle down effect that is killing some of our most-needed services, like school bus transportation.
There are districts across the country that are struggling to hire drivers and increase their fleet capacities, all while maintaining social distancing and creating a safe environment for students and drivers as well. The Washington Post is reporting that EastSide Charter School is in such desperate straits to find bus drivers that it is now offering parents $700 for the year to drop off and pick up their children. Other districts, like Pittsburgh Public Schools, have had to delay the return to the classroom until it is able to fill upwards of 400 driver positions.
“There’s a labor and inventory shortage at the same time we’re increasing enrollment and hiring,” Aaron Bass, chief executive of EastSide, told the Post. “We’ve been looking like crazy for everybody you can think of: janitors, cafeteria workers, psychologists, counselors, bus drivers. Even if you have all the money in the world, you can’t get what you need.”
Therein lies the problem; there are labor shortages everywhere. And many of these open positions are offering more money than those at school districts, and people are, understandably, opting for higher-paying jobs. That is leaving our schools and our children in the lurch. The Post reports that the economy has reopened more than 1.8 millions jobs in the last two months. And in July, the jobless rate decreased to 5.4%. This is promising — but we have to be able to fill jobs across all platforms.
In the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent report, the median income for school bus drivers in 2018 was $16.05. Today, companies are beating that by several dollars an hour. Missouri Central School Bus is offering from $20 to $22.60 an hour plus a $2000 signing bonus. Look at indeed.com and you will see hundreds of companies advertising similar rates and bonuses.
Families rely on these companies so that their children can have safe and reliable transportation to and from school. With so many parents working, it is sometimes impossible to get children back and forth to school on time and meet the demands of their jobs. KDKA in Pittsburgh spoke with concerned parents facing changes to their children’s schools bus programs.
“I received a letter from the transportation that my kids will no longer receive a school bus and will have to walk,” LaTavia Steele, mother of five PPS students, told KDKA. “I’m a mother, a single mother of six kids at two different schools. I work two jobs. I can’t get them to and from school every day,” she said.
Many parents echo these concerns across the country, but it goes deeper than a shortage in drivers. There is a shortage of buses. The CDC is still encouraging masking and social distancing, and the only way to do that on a bus is to transport fewer students. That means there is a need for even more buses, and it is just a vicious cycle.
“I have to make up for that by putting more buses on the road,” said William Andexler, Akron Public Schools transportation coordinator told the Post. “But I can’t do that if we don’t have drivers.”
He has cut routes to 70 from 80 and is in the process of consolidating stops in an effort to keep buses moving more quickly and efficiently. Even if he gets all of the kids transported, he is looking at an increase of $100,000 in costs for the year.
“Prices of everything — shipping, food, gas — are going up and all of that takes money out of our classrooms,” he said. “Yes, it hurts our families, but we unfortunately don’t have a choice.”
The Fox C-6 district in Jefferson County outside of St. Louis looked at different options trying to come up with a solution for their bus driver shortage. First, they offer training and help for their drivers in getting the proper licenses and certifications. They also have taken into consideration ways to serve their students best. One option was to change school start and end times, which would reduce the number of drivers needed to run the routes. The next was to discontinue bus services for those students living within 1.5 miles of their school. This would mean that one in five of their students would need to find alternate means of getting to school.
We must also keep in mind that we are living in a pandemic and there are still concerns about contracting COVID and these tricky variants. Some people just don’t want to put themselves in a precarious situation. Particularly when it is being reported that Delta is spreading so quickly among kids. It is still a very scary situation that people, quite frankly, want to steer clear of.
It remains to be seen how districts will be able to meet the needs of their students with changes in infrastructure. With more and more kids returning to in-person learning this year, changes will need to be made sooner than later. But it starts from the top. We can only hope that people continue to mask, get vaccinated, and help us to get our world a bit back to normal.