In Howard County, Maryland, 20 bus routes were canceled for the entire week.
Chicago’s public school system only has about half the drivers it needs.
And according to the Washington Post, in Louisville, Kentucky, transportation mistakes kept kids from getting home until 10 p.m.
While the bus driver shortage isn’t a new problem, the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year seems worse than ever. What is causing this latest hurdle, and what can be done to fix it?
Why is this happening?
Joanna McFarland, CEO of HopSkipDrive, spoke to PBS NewsHour about the reasons behind the shortage. She explained that although we’ve had a school bus driver shortage for over a decade now, COVID made a large number of drivers retire early.
“We’re just not finding enough people in the pool that want to be school bus drivers for districts to hire the number of drivers that they need,” McFarland says.
Molly McGee-Hewitt, CEO and Executive Director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, also told PBS NewHour that many school bus drivers who couldn’t get work during the pandemic found work elsewhere, and they don’t see an incentive to return.
A final reason comes from Erica L. Groshen, economic adviser to Cornell University’s ILR School and former commissioner of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. She told the Washington Post, “I suspect maybe school systems have been underpaying drivers for a very long time and maybe they need to look at that.” Perhaps, she added, “the chickens have come home to roost.”
Clearly, this is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight. In the meantime, families are trying to navigate this additional problem.
How it’s affecting students and families
- It’s a strain on time. Students are getting home late, between 5:30 p.m. and in some cases 10:00 p.m. Parents are waiting in long lines to pick up and drop off.
- It’s a strain on finances. Some families suddenly without transportation are scrambling to arrange it. Districts like Philadelphia pay families to provide their own transportation—a holdover policy from COVID—but most have essentially instructed families, “You’re on your own.” Parents and families have resorted to ride shares, paid carpooling, or other paid forms of transportation.
- It’s forcing some kids to stay home. For many families, transportation = education. Without a bus or vehicle, the bus driver shortage is playing a part in chronic absenteeism. Many districts have delayed their school year until transportation is improved.
With working parents, busy family schedules, and the already-stressful transition from summer to school year, it’s clear why the school bus driver shortage is taking a toll on so many families.
Can it be solved?
Like the teacher shortage and paraprofessional shortage, the school bus driver shortage can absolutely be solved: by making school bus driving a more attractive profession. Higher pay. More manageable routes. More accountability from schools for student behavior and safety.
Many districts are resorting to third-party transportation drivers, but they have been resigning too. Some districts have raised salaries or offered signing bonuses, but most have not and are relying on temporary solutions.
As mentioned, struggles with school bus routes and drivers are nothing new. Those existing barriers continue to persist. On top of that, though, administrators and leaders are trying to address problems brought on by the pandemic.
We polled our own community of teachers to find out what they think. Here are some of the comments:
“One school in our county is having paras drive buses.” —Alanna R.
“They changed the start times across my district and standardized them to be 7:30, 8:30, and 9:00 a.m. So my school now starts at 7:30 and my son at 9:00. He is in first grade and doesn’t get done until 3:39. So one bus driver can cover more routes. There are late buses every day, by hours.” —Teresa R.
“Maybe it’s time to get serious about the behavior of kids on the busses.” —Elizabeth C.
“Money, benefits, treated like real humans. That’s a start. COVID came and there were plans for buses but then there wasn’t money for it. Bus drivers are dying from COVID and not offered the same protection as teachers. I wouldn’t drive a bus either.” —Wendy H.