Shockingly only to the obtuse, school bus driving has lost its allure, meaning it has ceased to possess that which it never had.
Data are nowhere to be found to precisely quantify the shortage of school bus drivers, but descriptions of it are everywhere, in stories from The Associated Press and newspapers across the country, even in NEA Today, the publication of the National Education Association. The latter reported earlier this year that Prince William County, with a fleet of 900 buses was 62 drivers short. The AP late last year described proportionally similar gaps in Iowa and Nebraska.
In some districts, teachers are being asked to climb behind the wheel. Teachers buy school supplies for themselves. They might as well drive buses, too.
More than half of respondents to a recent National Association for Pupil Transportation survey said the driver shortage was their top problem. Similar numbers said the shortage is worsening and is severe or desperate for their company or school district.
All this rings familiar to Cherie Whitlow. She is Franklin County’s new supervisor of transportation, a position that makes her responsible for 155 county buses following daily routes totaling 13,000 miles. She arrived in Franklin after 22 years in Henry County, where she was a teacher, coach, assistant principal, athletic director, principal and supervisor of transportation. Only the blithely unaware envy her current position. Like her peers in districts from here to Iowa, Whitlow is seeking drivers.
Other vocations are less desirable but not by much. Acquire a commercial driver’s license (no easy thing) and begin driving a large, cumbersome machine, ferrying about children by the dozens; lurching in a series of stops and starts, once at the start of the day and again in the middle of it; part-time; and all for low wages and no benefits. What’s not to love? Where are the lines of candidates clamoring for routes?
Help is not on the way. Fewer students walk to school, swelling the ranks of riders. Drivers are in short supply, even in trucking. The only relief in sight remains distant, and that is the prospect of autonomous school buses. That idea was tested in a project in Florida that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration halted last year, describing it as “unlawful.”
Certainly, the day of driverless buses, trucks and cars will come, but not soon enough for administrators such as Whitlow and the teachers, students and parents across America affected by the shortage. This leaves officials contemplating the alternatives of either seeking out solutions or simply enduring. The latter is an especially unappealing option given the shortage’s disruptive impact.
Districts elsewhere have begun offering increased pay and benefits and signing bonuses while streamlining hiring, setting up job fairs and recruiting through advertising, according to NEA Today. An Iowa district has turned to some 50 retirees and stay-at-home parents for help. Even administrators and bus mechanics are driving.
Answers here start with those capable of doing so raising their hands for the job. The services of such people are badly needed.