School bus driver shortage

Buses stand lined up in preparation for afternoon pickup at Fayetteville High School. Like most districts across the U.S., Fayetteville Public Schools is experiencing a bus driver shortage that has forced route alterations and delays getting students to and from school.

Nearly two years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced public school closures nationwide, Northwest Arkansas districts are experiencing an ongoing bus driver shortage that has forced route consolidations and cancellations, causing some students to arrive at school or home hours late.

Districts across the country are facing driver shortages amid a larger national labor shortage. In a national survey of public school districts published Aug. 31, 2021, 51% of respondents described their driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate,” and 78% said their shortage was getting “much worse” or “a little worse,” according to the National Association for Pupil Transportation and two other national school transport organizations. To cope, 91% of respondents had altered service to elementary schools, 90% to middle schools and 83% to high schools.

Hoping to ease the shortage, U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Transportation officials announced Jan. 4 a temporary policy waiving requirements for prospective drivers to pass a minor section of the commercial driver’s license skills test.

Springdale Public Schools, the largest public school district in Arkansas, transports between 16,000 and 18,000 students every day, Director of Transportation Kevin Conkin said. After the district furloughed its drivers following the closure of public schools in March 2020, officials determined that more than 40% were 65 or older, and 78% were medically at risk for more severe COVID-19 infection, Conkin said.

In the two years since, many of those high-risk drivers chose to quit rather than continue working a job that could endanger their health, Conkin said. The problem was compounded by the so-called “Great Resignation,” a continuing national wave of worker departures that began spring 2021, and the return of most students to fully in-person instruction this school year.

“When that's hitting you right before you start in August, it's hard to rebound from that, and it still is,” Conkin said.

In August, Conkin and his team switched district-wide bus service to a tiered system in which each driver’s route involves picking up and dropping off students for a high school or junior high, then for a middle school, then for an elementary school in the same zone of the district. With a fully staffed fleet of 125-130 drivers, most would not need to service so many schools, making it easier to ensure all students get to school on time and arrive home by the late afternoon instead of the evening, Conkin said.

Conkin currently has around 100 on payroll at any given time, up slightly from late fall, he said. He, his safety coordinator and some of the district’s mechanics and teachers have been driving buses to try and fill the gaps, but even small fluctuations in the number of drivers available each day can spell trouble for the precarious system.

“We actually had a driver that's a teacher, and he had tested positive with COVID so there's several little children out there that won't get to school if I don't get on that bus, and that breaks my heart,” Conkin said. “Myself and my route coordinator and our dispatcher in the morning, you know there's been more than one day that we've been in tears because we couldn't get everybody to school.”

Most days Conkin and his staff must completely cancel two or three routes of afternoon service because of understaffing, leaving students on canceled routes to find alternative ways of getting home. At the crisis’ peak, it could be as many as 10 routes.

Mike McClure, director of transportation services for Fayetteville Public Schools, a district which was short five drivers at the start of the school year and is now down nine, said he feels grateful he has not had to cancel routes. However, the system McClure was forced to implement means some days Fayetteville High School students are not picked up from school until after 5 p.m., over an hour after school ends. The district’s drivers work tiered routes like Springdale’s, but each has two such routes to cover back-to-back each afternoon.

“I got a CDL back when I taught and coached, and I have been in transportation for about 20 years,” McClure said. “It’s definitely the worst shortage I've ever seen.”

McClure, his dispatcher and several FPS mechanics have also been driving routes this year to help ease the shortage. In mid-December, FPS had not received a bus driver application in more than a year. Since then, two new hires have started the training process, but two veteran drivers died and a third had to quit after being diagnosed with a serious medical condition.

Dawn Stafford and her husband have three children in FPS, including a daughter at Ramay Junior High School whose bus is often delayed mornings and afternoons. If the bus is delayed, usually by about an hour, Stafford receives email alerts a few hours before it is expected to arrive at her stop or depart Ramay. The emails are sometimes close to last-minute, said Stafford, who has to leave for work at 7:20 a.m.

“There's some mornings where my husband will have to take the kids to school, because if they ride the bus, they'll be late to school,” Stafford said. “And for my daughter at Ramay, whether she's late because of the bus or not, the school still counts her as being late. And that’s something with the system that I’m sure is not right. But yeah, it's been a problem, and that gives her anxiety.”

Stafford’s husband once had to leave work for an hour during his shift at a local restaurant to pick up their daughter, so she wouldn’t have to wait at school for hours for a delayed bus which would have gotten her home at 5:30 or 6 p.m., Stafford said.

FPS has an especially hard time recruiting drivers because it is the lowest-paying district in the region and is competing with understaffed districts offering better incentives, McClure said. The starting bus driver wage in FPS is $14.25 an hour, plus a monthly attendance bonus of $50, although McClure is hopeful a $1.50 raise next school year could help. SPS raised starting driver wages to $15.08 and added a $20-per-day and $50-per-month attendance bonus last fall, and Bentonville Schools offer $19.08 per hour. 

As a father who often works 12 or more hours each day ensuring all students get home safely, Conkin understands how frustrating the shortage’s effects are for other working parents and their children who rely on bus transportation, he said. District officials are doing all they can to recruit and train new drivers, and turnover has slowed since fall, but qualified new applicants are rare.

“We have got to do our best to hire folks, and we can't and won't hire just anyone,” Conkin said. “So (there’s) the parents, but you know the number one (thing) is that we are letting our number one clients down, and that's our students. And that's what keeps me up at night.”

This story is part of an ongoing series about the U.S. labor shortage and its effects on Arkansans. For more special coverage, visit uatrav.com and select “Where are the Workers?” under the “News” tab at the top of the site.

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