A national shortage of school bus drivers that started last year has become so severe that a number of states are taking drastic action, including calling on the help of the National Guard and threatening a transition to virtual school—here’s why many school districts are struggling to get their students to class.
The school bus shortage followed the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the transition to online school caused a mass exodus of bus drivers who either became sick with the virus, were furloughed from their jobs or decided to quit.
With the return of in-person schooling, many school districts and bus businesses have attempted to lure back drivers with pay increases and bonuses (one local bus company in Connecticut started offering a $7,000 signing bonus for licensed school bus drivers), and have even started offering money to parents to drive students.
But the problems have persisted, according to an August survey by the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) which found 78% of the 1,500 responding school districts reported being in the midst of a worsening crisis, with 51% describing their shortage issues as “severe” or “desperate.”
Officials and bus companies have also cited coronavirus requirements, like mask and vaccine mandates, which reportedly led to the departure of 100 contracted drivers in Chicago on the first week of school.
Some states have become so desperate they have moved to call in the National Guard. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) last month mobilized 250 guard members to help drive buses. Officials in Ohio and New York have floated taking the same action. The driver shortages have also threatened a return to virtual school in at least two districts, including in New Castle, Delaware, where families were notified last week that the problems in their district were so severe that “office staff and mechanics” were transporting students to school. New York’s Rome City School District was forced to temporarily switch to remote learning at the end of last month when several of its bus drivers tested positive for Covid-19, exacerbating its existing shortages.
“I am requesting that you take immediate action to help alleviate this crisis,” Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente, who oversees the Rome City School District, wrote in a letter to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) after the Covid-19 outbreak. “Whether it is deploying the National Guard to drive buses or requiring school districts to amend hours of operation to stay open, I am open to discussing any solution.”
While exacerbated by the pandemic, experts highlight that the bus driver shortages have been festering for years. The industry has long been plagued by criticism of poor pay and benefits due to the underfunding of public schools. Bus drivers are often lured to other industries with better pay, such as trucking companies and delivery services.
“Some jobs like bus drivers we haven’t paid people well enough,” John King, Kr., who served as secretary of Education under former President Barack Obama, told Yahoo Finance in a recent interview. “I would caution that we’re going to expect that the driver shortage will remain severe throughout this entire school year.”