Bus driver shortages are latest challenge hitting US schools

Coronavirus

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana school district is dangling $4,000 bonuses and inviting people to test drive big yellow school buses in hopes of enticing them to take a job that schools are struggling to fill as kids return to in-person classes.

A Delaware school district offered to pay parents $700 to take care of their own transportation, and a Pittsburgh district delayed the start of classes and said hundreds more children would have to walk to school. Schools across the U.S. are offering hiring bonuses, providing the training needed to get a commercial driver’s license and increasing hourly pay to attract more drivers.

The shortage of bus drivers is complicating the start of a school year already besieged by the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19, contentious disagreement over masking requirements, and the challenge of catching up on educational ground lost as the pandemic raged last year.

The driver shortfall isn’t new, but a labor shortage across many sectors and the pandemic’s lingering effects have made it worse, since about half the workforce was over 65 and more vulnerable to the virus, said Joanna McFarland, co-founder and CEO of school ride-service company HopSkipDrive, which tracks school bus issues.

Her company conducted a survey in March that found nearly 80% of districts that responded were having trouble finding enough bus drivers.

“It’s really at a breaking point,” McFarland said.

First Student, a company that contracts bus service for school districts around the county, held test driving events they called “Big Bus, No Big Deal” in Montana and many other states this summer to give people an opportunity to try their hand at driving. The hope was that it could remove a barrier to those who otherwise might be interested in helping get kids safely to and from school, said Dan Redford, with First Student in Helena, Montana.

“We actually set up a closed course at the fairgrounds, and we invited the public to come in and learn that it’s not a big deal to drive a big bus,” Redford said. “They’re actually pretty easy to drive. You sit up high. You’ve got plenty of view.”

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