Nationwide School Bus Driver Shortage Affects Students

Key Takeaways

  • A nationwide school bus driver shortage means that some children may arrive at school late, or get home late.
  • Tardiness can have a negative effect on academic performance.
  • Some schools are more affected than others.

At the start of the school year, students and families are dealing with yet another round of school bus driver shortages. There just aren’t enough drivers to pick all of the kids up and bring them back home in the afternoons.

The night before the first day of school, Eliza received a call informing her that her 12-year-old son’s bus would be 30 to 40 minutes late in the morning due to unexpected driver resignations and illnesses. The school district had decided to choose one or two buses from various schools to run late. Her son’s bus was one of them.

The New Jersey mom of two scrambled to call a few neighbors and found a friend down the street to drive him along with their own daughter. The following day, it was the same story. The bus was assigned to run late again.

“This is inequitable for the students on that route and adds unnecessary stress to the first week at a new school,” says Eliza. “My husband and I both have to leave for work before the bus arrives so we are unable to drive our son.”

Many families depend on the school bus, and current solutions to the shortage are causing kids to miss out on critical instructional time. Children whose families rely on the school bus are being picked up on a combined route or even a second route. These children arrive late, missing out on precious education time at the day’s start. Having to wait at school to be brought home can also lead to over an hour’s delay getting home, impacting after-school activities.

Why is There a School Bus Driver Shortage?

School bus drivers are hard to staff in general. The pay can be low and the work is not always full-time. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the job has become even less appealing due to health concerns. Many drivers who were furloughed during the 2020 lockdown retired or didn’t keep their licenses current due to DMV closures. Many drivers have left the school bus companies in order to drive for commercial bus companies.

“This year our impact came from sudden resignations of drivers for some of our contracted bus service providers,” says Victor Valeski, Superintendent of East Brunswick Public Schools in New Jersey. “We found that drivers were not necessarily leaving the driving profession. They were seeking opportunities, like those enjoyed by our in-house bus driving staff, that offered full-time employment with benefits.”

The pandemic has left school districts throughout the nation with staff shortages, according to a recent survey of school leaders. Though less talked about than the teacher shortage, the bus driver shortage is one of the most acute, along with shortages of paraprofessionals, special education teachers, and substitutes. Fifty-seven percent of schools reported school bus driver shortages and within urban schools, that number jumped to 60%.

How Does the School Bus Driver Shortage Impact Students?

Students are being affected by the shortage in a variety of ways. Combined buses or buses having to circle back and pick up more students are making students late to class in the morning. This is problematic because chronic tardiness has been linked to lower academic performance. Repeatedly coming into school late might make students feel embarrassed or anxious as well.

Being late in the morning is just one complication related to not having enough school bus drivers. Kids are also stuck at the end of the day, waiting for a bus, making them late getting home or for after-school activities and appointments.

Angelina, mother of two

I need my kids to get home on time so that I can drop them off at their dad’s work, which is where they stay when I go to my bartending job. It would be a major problem if the bus schedules were affected.

— Angelina, mother of two

“I need my kids to get home on time so that I can drop them off at their dad’s work, which is where they stay when I go to my bartending job,” says Angelina, a San Francisco-based mom to two boys. “It would be a major problem if the bus schedules were affected.”

Some school districts have had to cancel sports because there aren’t enough drivers to transport them to these events. In the district where Eliza lives, the junior high student-athletes were supposed to be bussed to the high school for practices and games. Due to the limited number of busses, practices had to be canceled the first week of school, and athletes’ parents were being asked to drive them.

Waiting an extended time in poor weather can also be a problem. “Our bus stop is several houses away and it was pouring rain,” says Eliza. “So the school district expected [my son] to stand out in the rain and just wait until the bus arrived with no more information.” Whether it’s rain, extreme heat, high winds, or another type of hazardous weather, we definitely don’t want our kids to have to wait outside in unsafe conditions.

How The School Bus Driver Shortage Affects Parents

Working parents, parents without cars, or parents taking care of other children at home may be especially impacted by the school bus driver shortage.

Having to drive kids to school and pick them up is a hardship for some families, especially if it would make parents late to work or miss work. “I can come into work late every once in a while if there is an issue with my kids,” says Angelina. “It can’t be a regular thing or I’d lose my job.”

Solutions to the School Bus Driver Shortage

Districts can’t necessarily afford to pay higher salaries as some commercial companies can offer. Though they may have received some stimulus money during the pandemic, it isn’t a long-term solution. Creative solutions are necessary. Some districts are trying to have any employee with a Class-B driver’s license take a route.

The East Brunswick Public School District is currently working on expanding its bus fleet and hiring more drivers. In the meantime, officials are trying to make the best of the situation. The district has assigned management staff from the transportation department to some of the bus routes. They have also staffed their office with additional personnel to answer phones and assist parents whose kids’ buses have been affected.

Victor Valeski, School Superintendent

Our transportation department has been working each day and evening to continue to build efficiency into our routes.

— Victor Valeski, School Superintendent

“Our transportation department has been working each day and evening to continue to build efficiency into our routes,” says Valeski. “They have combined routes when possible and sought assistance from other contracted bus service providers who are willing to pick up selected routes, even if it is for a short duration.”

But some parents aren’t satisfied yet. “Why not rotate which bus is late each day or choose all of the buses from one school, so that school can wait to begin teaching academics until all students have arrived?” Eliza suggests. “This situation has caused plenty of unneeded stress and anxiety to an already hectic beginning of school.”

Luckily, for Eliza and her son, the school district’s transportation department was able to secure a driver and a designated bus route by the second week of school.

What This Means For You

If you rely on the school bus, there’s a chance your children might have to catch a late ride some time this school year. It may be wise to plan ahead for possible solutions, such as carpooling with a neighbor or seeing if that day could be a work-from-home day. If a late bus would cause a hardship for your family and you don’t think you have another way to get your kids to school, reach out to your district or school.

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