About 20 million pre-high school students nationwide live too far to walk to school, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Half of those kids rely on taking the school bus.
“It’s been a chronic problem over the years, but the pandemic made it worse as schools shut down and went virtual, and drivers (who had grown) tired of split shifts, low pay and poor benefits left student transportation to pursue other opportunities,” said Wes Platt, who serves as the executive editor of School Bus Fleet, which covers school transportation issues.
In the face of these challenges, schools are responding with a range of strategies.
INCREASING BUS DRIVER PAY
Some school districts are trying to stay competitive by raising compensation to retain drivers who may consider leaving for better-paying jobs.
Rockford Public Schools in Michigan increased its starting pay for bus drivers from $17 an hour to approximately $21 an hour this year.
“What we found was, it allowed for us to maintain some of the drivers that we had heard through the grapevine were looking at leaving to some different schools,” said Michael Cuneo, assistant superintendent for finance. “And we were able to get more bus drivers in the hopper.”
But the pay increase hasn’t been a cure-all.
“There’s more demand than there is supply. … This has helped stem the tide, but it hasn’t completely solved the problem,” he said.
Cuneo added that one thing districts should consider doing is also offering what he called “psychic income” — showing bus drivers who are doing difficult jobs they’re appreciated. Things like offering drivers breakfast and flexibility over what routes they are assigned.
CONSOLIDATING BUS STOPS
“We found ourselves at unprecedentedly short levels of staffing really last year. And all manner of route redesign to optimize the efficiency while still providing transportation to all eligible riders was exhausted,” Adam Searcy, the chief facilities management officer at the Washoe County School District in Nevada, said.
So the district decided to consolidate bus stops at the middle and high school levels. This cut the number of stops and the number of drivers needed.
“Largely we consolidated those to the nearest other school,” Searcy said. “So basically putting a high school bus stop at … a neighborhood elementary school. And that required that many of those riders walked a much more significant distance to that more regional (hub).”
Colorado Springs School District 11 also consolidated bus stops. Kevin McCafferty, who serves as the operations manager for transportation, emphasized that community communication is essential when making big changes to transit.
“Those are difficult decisions … and difficult conversations that you have to have,” McCafferty said, adding that the district has its own app it uses to keep parents notified of new developments.
Paying parents to drive kids to school
When EastSide Charter School in Delaware struggled to find enough bus drivers to meet kids’ needs last year, Chief Executive Aaron Bass decided to use part of his school’s transportation budget to offer incentives to parents to drive their kids to school instead.
The school offered parents $700 per student for the school year if they agreed to drop off and pick up their kids in lieu of using bus services.
“We were so used to only doing things one way … we actually realized, Hey we have funding for buses but don’t have buses, how (can we use the) funding to get the same outcome?” Bass said.
He noted that somewhere between 150 and 200 of the school’s 500 total students utilized the arrangement.
In addition to helping the school deal with its bus driver shortage, the relationships between parents and educators improved based on the daily contact at drop-off and pickup.
“We utilized every second of that time,” Bass said, noting that they were able to increase parent communication and participation in school events.
The charter school was able to bring back its full fleet of drivers for this school year, so it ended the incentive program for parents.
The hub system in Washoe County, and other steps the district took, such as increasing driver pay, weren’t enough. In the spring semester of 2022, they took a step Searcy called “unprecedented”: implementing an area rotation plan.
“We broke the district up into essentially four separate areas and on any given week one of those four areas would not receive transportation whatsoever,” he said.
In order to soften the blow of this move, the county started paying parents.
“During the week that you are not receiving transportation services, you can apply for a mileage reimbursement for that week,” Searcy said.