(NewsNation) — The road back to the classroom could be a bumpy one for many students as a bus driver shortage fueled by the pandemic and a transition to virtual learning drove many school bus drivers out of the field and could leave many children stuck at the bus stop.
According to the National Association for Pupil Transportation, yellow school buses transport nearly 25 million children to and from school every weekday. These buses also transport another 3 million to 5 million students to everything from athletic events to field trips.
The loss of bus service could cause major disruptions to it all. It’s another industry hit hard by COVID-19.
Many school districts lost bus drivers to other fields when schools shut down due to the pandemic, forcing school bus drivers to find other work to make ends meet.
It set the stage for a potential trickle-down effect, which could hit companies nationwide as parents who, without school bus transportation for their children, arrive late to work, leave early to pick up their kids or take days off entirely.
“I have to either put them in before-school care so I can drop them off early to be at work at 7:45 or I have to have someone else drop them off,” said Nikki Skibiski, a mother of two in Springdale, Arkansas.
The crisis is so bad that at least 1,000 drivers are needed in Connecticut. Officials are using new technology to expedite the application process, which in some cases now takes as little as 24 hours.
One district in the state is going so far as to recruit retirees to the field.
“The experience is so joyful because I feel like I am giving back to the community what it did for my kids,” said driver Annie Michel.
School principals are helping, too. In Texas’ Arp ISD, high school principal Mike Miller has volunteered to transport students.
“It’s kind of unique, you get to interact with students in a different way and they can get to see you in a different light,” Miller said. “It all comes down to helping as much as we can.”
In suburban Chicago, remote learning eliminated the need for school bus drivers, leaving many districts scrambling to hire drivers ahead of the first day of school.
One district offered bonuses to current drivers who recruited new ones, and another increased pay and offered a competitive benefits package, including flexible hours. A third hosted a “drive-a-bus-day,” hoping to get people behind the wheel and, potentially, in front of a job application.
Many schools in North Dakota are hiring part-time and full-time drivers. The shortage means students are likely to face longer rides to and from school, as current bus drivers do double duty and make twice the runs in order to get students to school.
“That creates an inconvenience for parents and the students because they are going to be on the bus for longer periods of time,” Dr. Richard Faidley, superintendent of the Williston school district. “But we’re fairly confident that even though we have the shortage, we will be able to alleviate those concerns.
Randal Wilson, director of transportation for Arp ISD, said it’s critical to solve the driver shortage.
“It’s very important, you’re dealing with your future,” he said. “I mean, if you look at my buses, on the back of them it has a sign that says ‘precious cargo’ … that’s what you’re hauling.”