Shortage of bus drivers continues to disrupt PC school system | New

While rapper Busdriver is still here to transport us to Imaginary Places, Pulaski County bus drivers are dwindling, according to Pulaski County Schools Superintendent Pat Richardson.

“It’s been a recurring problem for several years,” says Richardson. “And the pandemic has only made it worse.”

Unfortunately, this is not a problem exclusive to Pulaski County. A survey by HopSkipDrive, a vehicle rental company that primarily serves schoolchildren, reports that 88% of schools suffer from some sort of driver shortage.

Richardson echoes what school officials are saying across the Commonwealth and across the country as a whole. What led to the shortage is the same thing that first enticed drivers to get behind the wheel.

“Many of our drivers are past retirement age,” says Richardson. “They drive to supplement their income or for the insurance benefit package or that sort of thing.”

With children transitioning to homeschooling to avoid exposure to COVID, bus drivers were not needed to drive students.

“We lost several during the pandemic, and we struggled to fill those positions,” says Richardson. “We have tried to increase salaries over the past few years, but we are still struggling to fill these positions.”

The school system offers drivers between $13 and $15 an hour as well as benefits and pension plans. While this was a very attractive offer for those who wanted to supplement their income before the pandemic, it does not seem to be enough to ensure the return of drivers. Richardson attributes this to the nature of the work.

“It’s a niche position,” he says. “The schedules will have to adapt. Income needs will have to adapt. I think it’s just hard…”

Richardson also says the specialization requirements that are needed to perform the job are a barrier for some.

“You are driving a large vehicle. You need one [Commercial Driver’s License] to drive it,” says Richardson. “Of course, we train our own people to drive buses, but it’s an oversized vehicle that runs on small roads. You turn your back on 30-50 students at a time. It can be a stressful position.

One of the ways the school system has tried to combat the shortage is to allow drivers to take multiple routes. This offers the dual solution of giving drivers the opportunity to get better paid and the school system a way to fill routes. Unfortunately, the success of this method has been limited, and many drivers have missed the opportunity.

“Some want to take advantage of it and some don’t,” says Richardson. “Our district is so large and our routes are so long that it’s difficult for many drivers to take advantage of these opportunities because the routes just don’t line up and the time factor isn’t there.”

Although the school system technically has enough staff to cover each route, Richardson says, on days when many drivers are calling at the same time, schools are forced to close routes, sometimes for several days in a row.

“It’s not a good alternative,” says Richardson. “I’m just trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

While major cities have managed to reduce this problem by emphasizing public transportation and making areas around schools more “walkable,” Richardson says such solutions for Pulaski County are not relevant in because of the sheer size of the district.

“Our buses travel about 7,000 miles a day and never leave the Pulaski County lines,” says Richardson. “With such a large county, we don’t have a lot of schools with sidewalks or in residential areas where students could walk… We don’t have a transit option in our area, so we’re really the only game in town. This sometimes puts us in a precarious situation.

The PC District has attempted to do what other school districts across the country have done, which is to offer bus drivers other positions within the school system, but many drivers still have not chosen or simply cannot hold other positions. Besides, repeats Richardson, bus drivers are generally retirees looking to supplement their income.

“It’s not necessarily income to support a family,” he says. “That’s what made it really nice for people of retirement age, and it really hurt us with COVID.”

The main victims of COVID tend to be older workers. While Richardson says drivers haven’t seen more exposure than others during the pandemic and celebrated the small victory that there haven’t been many COVID-related deaths that have affected drivers, they still haven’t come back.

Despite this hurdle facing the school system, Richardson has confidence in his drivers and feels blessed that they are whom he can count on to transport students safely.

“We have an excellent group of drivers. They work hard every day,” says Richardson. “They are the first impact a student has in the morning and the last when they come down in the afternoon. We are very grateful to the pilots we have now, we just wish they were more like them.

Jeremy S. McLain