A severe shortage of school bus drivers, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and competition from commercial businesses, has districts combining and collapsing routes and scrambling to find enough drivers for the ones that are left. New legislation could make matters worse.

Although California has had an acute shortage of school staff throughout the pandemic, school officials cite the lack of bus drivers as one of their biggest problems.

A large banner is strung across the San Diego Unified bus yard advertising bus driver jobs. District vans sport ads announcing job openings for drivers. The district is short 50 drivers this school year, forcing it to combine and reorganize routes, as well as press other workers — with the required Class B license — into service as drivers, said Marceline Marques, operations support officer for the district.

“We are trying everything — shaking the trees and looking for candidates,” Marques said. “We are competing with all the school districts, as well as MTS,” or San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System.

Bus driver jobs, which require specialized training and often have split shifts or six-hour days, and often low pay, were already a hard sell before the Covid-19 pandemic. But since the pandemic began, health concerns and increased competition from commercial companies, who also have staffing shortages, have made a job as a school bus driver even less appealing.

Pay for school bus drivers varies greatly, but generally ranges from $15 to $36 an hour for mostly part-time work. Commercial truck drivers who work locally can make between $60,000 and $88,000 a year, according to the online job board Indeed.

“I’ve been a bus driver for nine years, and I’ve been a scheduler for a year, and it has never been this bad,” said Olivia Minor, who works for Sacramento City Unified School District. “Wages aren’t there. They can’t afford to be a bus driver anymore. They can’t actually survive and feed their families and make ends meet.”

The bus driver shortage is being felt across the country. A recent national survey of 359 district and charter network leaders by the Rand Corp. showed that 57% of school districts had a considerable shortage of bus drivers this school year. In urban districts, the number increased to 69%, according to the study.

In California, bus drivers are scarce in nearly every district. EdJoin.Org, an online education job board, listed 898 open bus driver jobs in California on March 3.

“This is a big challenge statewide that has sort of fallen in the shadows of the more well-known teacher shortage, but has a significant impact on school operations and the simple ability of students to get to and from school,” said Troy Flint, chief information officer for the California School Boards Association.

Increasing compensation could help with the shortage, but school districts don’t have the funding to do that long-term, Flint said. Covid relief money isn’t the answer, as most of those funds are earmarked for a particular purpose or are one-time funds. It is considered bad budget practice to staff new, ongoing positions with one-time funds, he said.

The school bus driver issue hasn’t received a lot of attention because only a small percentage of California students ride a bus, Flint said. California is one of the few states that does not require districts to provide transportation to students who don’t have special needs.

New law would expand transportation to all students

That could change next year. A new law proposed by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would require transportation for pre-K through eighth graders who live over a half-mile from a school and high school students who live more than a mile from their neighborhood school. The requirement would be limited to public noncharter schools. Senate Bill 878 also would create the Access to Public Schools Fund, which would repay districts for transportation costs. The cost of the law, which was introduced in January, has not yet been determined.

According to the bill, studies show that school attendance and graduation rates go up when students have guaranteed transportation to and from school. The bill also cites safety as a need for home-to-school transportation.

Providing transportation to almost every student would be a significant change for California school districts, whose school boards generally decide which students get a bus ride to school. The decision usually depends on how far the student lives from school, whether the route is dangerous for pedestrians and special circumstances. Federal law requires districts to provide transportation to homeless students and students with disabilities.

Marques likes the idea of giving every student a ride to a school, but said San Diego Unified doesn’t have the staff or vehicles to make it happen. Currently, the school district provides rides to about 8,000 students.

“To project being able to do that for 100,000 students, I don’t know that the transit system in San Diego could manage that amount of school buses on the road,” she said.

Palm Springs Unified already contracts its bus services out to First Student Charter Bus Rental. But there still aren’t enough drivers for all its routes, which were reduced from 83 to 72 since the beginning of the school year because of a lack of drivers, said Abdul Bouzroud, the district’s transportation coordinator.

Palm Springs Unified students have arrived at schools up to an hour late after waiting for bus drivers to finish dropping off students at another school before doubling back to pick them up, he said. Bouzroud is unsure how the district will manage transportation for all of its students if the legislation passes.

“It’s going to be very challenging,” he said, “I’m going to tell you that. I don’t know what will happen next year, but I don’t see a dramatic increase in drivers.”

A separate piece of legislation that passed in 2019 has high school students starting school earlier this year, and middle schoolers starting earlier next year. The earlier start times have districts scrambling to rearrange routes.

San Diego Unified was able to stagger routes to 200 schools before the legislation to ensure enough staffing, but now with more kids at school at the same time they have had to combine routes and get “super creative” to cover all the routes, Marques said.

“Next fall we will move some elementary schools to an earlier start to accommodate it, and we are a little nervous about being able to get enough drivers on board to cover all of those needs,” she said.

Training, required tests are causing a bottleneck

The requirements for school bus drivers depend on the size of the vehicle they will drive. Only the drivers of the small 10-passenger van aren’t required to have a Class B license. Drivers of the special education vans must have additional certification. Drivers also have to pass alcohol and drug screenings and background checks.

School districts often provide classroom and behind-the-wheel training, but that is just the beginning. Drivers also have to pass written tests at both the California Department of Motor vehicles and the California Highway Patrol, as well as a behind-the-wheel test with a CHP officer. Getting an appointment with a CHP officer can take weeks, both Bouzroud and Marquez said.

“There is only one individual for CHP that assesses school bus drivers in the region,” Marques said. “That makes it pretty tough because we are all fighting over one guy.”

Businesses vying with districts for scarce drivers

Districts are not only competing with each other, but with commercial enterprises. In Palm Springs, the opening of an Amazon distribution center has put a dent in the number of applications the district has received for bus drivers because Amazon doesn’t require its drivers to pass drug and alcohol tests and offers full-time work instead of the part-time jobs available at the district, Bouzroud said.

“There has been a lot of churn in the drivers’ ranks — more so than in the past,” Marques said. “In may be in a different era there may have been folks that had a career as a school bus driver and they loved it and loved the connection with the students. Now there are so many other opportunities, online opportunities that have taken them away.”

Pay for bus drivers varies depending on location and experience. An EdJoin advertisement for drivers at Fort Sage Unified in Lassen County offers to pay $15.73 to $27.83, depending on experience, while Carmel Unified in Monterey County advertises jobs for drivers at between $25.63 and $36.48 an hour. Substitute and trainee drivers generally make less, and driver trainers more. Some districts are offering signing bonuses.

To entice more people to work as bus drivers at San Diego Unified, district leaders have offered cash incentives to drivers who recruit a friend, and they began a program that pays drivers while they train and go through the licensing process. Unfortunately, people often leave the district after earning their license, Marques said.

First Student, which provides bus service for Palm Springs Unified, recently raised driver pay from $16 to $21. The pay rise brought in three or four new drivers, Bouzroud said.

“We thought we would have a dramatic increase in job applications, but the problem is that background checks and drug checks eliminate a lot of candidates,” he said. “They pass their phone interview, and when they do their fingerprint or drug and alcohol test they fail.”

Minor makes $21.50 an hour plus medical benefits scheduling drivers and routes at Sacramento City Unified. She started as a driver at $16. The top pay for a driver is $21, although the cost of living continues to rise, she said.

“We have just been at the bottom of the barrel for so long,” Minor said. “How can you pick up garbage and be more valued than the people who pick up children?”

Sacramento City Unified has 79 drivers, but needs 21 more, according to the district. An ad for a bus driver position on EdJoin says it is offering between $17.12 and $20.49 for bus drivers and $15.43 to $18.28 for van drivers.

The shortage of drivers has caused the district to cancel some routes and double up on others, Minor said.

“Now we have parents constantly calling in ‘Our bus is 30 minutes late. Our bus is an hour late,’” she said. “Parents have to call in late or sick. It’s a cycle. It affects our whole community.”

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