From Alaska to Rhode Island and even Hawaii, there is a school bus driver shortage impacting school systems, transportation officials and families across the nation. Alabama is no exception.
According to a national survey by HopSkipDrive, 88 percent of respondents reported having driver shortage issues.
In Alaska, the Anchorage School District called in active duty airmen to help transport students to school.
In east Alabama, the Randolph County School system has 37 bus routes. While finding drivers and substitute drivers is challenging, transportation supervisor Benny Floyd said he is doing all he can to get students to and from school.
“I have no subs,” said Floyd. “I constantly stay on the phone trying to get the routes covered. Especially with football, volleyball and softball, and field trips, too. I have to get all of these routes covered.”
Some bus drivers cannot take days off when needed because there is simply no one to fill the seat.
Floyd himself and two mechanics that work with transportation have had to step in and drive buses themselves.
“We haven’t gotten to the point yet where drivers have got to run two routes,” said Floyd. “I have managed to keep the routes covered. But we’re so rural, and our routes are so long that it’s different in a rural setting than it is in a city.”
Still, drivers have to work only about four hours a day and can elect to get a paycheck year-round, along with benefits, so being unable to find drivers has been frustrating for Floyd.
“The bottom line is, people don’t want to work anymore,” Floyd said. “This younger generation just doesn’t want to, and it’s not a bad job.”
Randy Jennings has been a bus driver for 17 years in Randolph County and will retire this November. He enjoyed his time behind the wheel, but said things have become more difficult with fewer drivers. He said he has experienced a time when he needed a day off and was unable to get it.
“You can go into the school and write in for a sick day or a personal day, and there ain’t no negotiation; you get it,” said Jennings. “But if you just need a day off to go do something, you might not have a driver, so you don’t get to go.”
While some districts have increased the pay for school bus drivers, rural counties in Alabama are struggling to find funds to do so.
“I wish we could pay our drivers more,” Randolph County Superintendent John Jacobs said.
Jacobs said he hopes that something would happen statewide to encourage more people to get their CDL license and drive school buses.
“I just think people are not interested in driving buses,” said Jacobs. “… it’s really a part-time job … so I think the pay is somewhat restrictive on it. There has been some talk about doing a statewide salary scale for bus drivers.”
Another issue facing rural areas is longer bus routes. Floyd said some of the routes are getting even longer. For example, he had to cut one route in the town of Woodland because a bus driver retired, and there was no one to fill the position.
“That deters the driver, too,” said Floyd. “They say, ‘my route is two hours now, and it used to be 45 minutes.’ It’s a tough situation right now.”
Rural areas also have to deal with more maintenance costs for buses that drive on dirt roads and roads that have not been maintained well in less populated areas.
“It does beat them up pretty bad,” said Jacobs. “By 10 years, the ones on these dirt roads, the front end has gone out from under them.”
Jacobs said the school system did get some new buses thanks to grants over the past couple of years, and the state pays for a large portion of maintenance costs. He said although the state is getting more money from COVID funds, local school systems can’t depend on that money for the long haul.
“If you raise their pay up a lot, that money has to come from somewhere,” said Jacobs. “The state’s not giving it to us. It comes out of the general fund, or you cut somewhere else.
“I think we all know this spending like this can’t just keep going. Then you change the pay scale, and you’re on the hook for these people for the rest of their career.”
Jacobs said the issue began before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has gotten worse.
“We have three that are retiring this fall, and it’s going to be a struggle to find replacements,” Jacobs said.
Floyd said he could tell that COVID was already starting to impact schools again this year.
“It’s looking like next week I will have even more of a problem,” Floyd said. “I have some drivers out, and COVID is starting to ramp up again, too … you take a driver five days off the bus with no subs; that’s bad.”
Randolph County Schools have put signs up encouraging people to become bus drivers. The school system is actively working to recruit teachers and coaches to sign on to help fill the shortage.
“We’ve told them if you want to get your license, we pay for their subs so they can get up and go,” Jacobs explained.
Jacobs said being a bus driver could be very rewarding, and he hopes people could see the need and warm up to the idea.
“It’s like anything; it’s building a relationship with your kids,” said Jacobs.
“It’s the kids for me, and that’s it,” Jennings added. “I have a good bunch of kids.”