Why is there a shortage of school bus drivers? Problem worsened by COVID reaches crisis level

 Single mom Shakira Hemphill says she made at least 85 round trips driving her son to and from his school near the District of Columbia since last year. The region where she lives, as with much of the country, is dealing with a severe shortage of school bus drivers. Routes have been consolidated; pick-up and drop-off times have been pushed to earlier and later in the day. 

Last school year, the bus, when it did show up, would take several hours to get to and from a special school 50 miles away. Hemphill’s son Elijah, 18, has intellectual disabilities and is nonverbal, and he’s entitled to public school services until he’s 21. The prolonged rides sometimes forced him to soil his pants, she said. Once a fan of school, Elijah told Hemphill that he didn't want to go there, that it took too long. She's since transferred him to another school.   

School bus driver positions have long been hard to fill, largely because of the job’s expectations and low pay. But since COVID, the problem has reached crisis levels. Driver shortages are the rule, not the exception.  

While national data for 2023 aren’t yet available, a USA TODAY analysis of news coverage and local statistics found at least one instance of a major school bus driver shortage in every state this year, from Hawaii to New York. In Chicago, most routes are suspended for the upcoming school year, and across Virginia, districts are desperately trying to find emergency drivers. In Louisville, Kentucky, school bus route problems stemming from staff shortages forced the district to disrupt the school year just after it began.

A student waits to disembark from a school bus outside Shaffner Elementary in Shively on Wednesday morning. Aug. 9, 2023.
A student waits to disembark from a school bus outside a Kentucky elementary school earlier this month.  

Like teacher shortages ravaging some schools across the U.S., these bus driver vacancies have a direct impact on students’ learning. But the driver vacancies are more pervasive than those of classroom educators. Roughly half of the country’s schoolchildren rely on these services to get to school, and when they’re not in class they can’t learn. That class time is especially precious now as attendance and achievement rates struggle to rebound. 

Bus driver shortages affect most school districts

HopSkipDrive, which offers school transportation services, has for the past several years surveyed education and transportation leaders nationwide about topics including driver shortages and chronic absenteeism. (Chronic absenteeism generally describes students who miss at least 10% of the school year.) 

Its latest batch of survey data, previewed by USA TODAY, suggests driver shortages have actually gotten worse over the past few years. Ninety-two percent of leaders surveyed report their operations are constrained by driver shortages, compared with 88% last year and 78% in 2021. Nearly half of respondents – 40% – said they’ve had to reduce transportation services to deal with the shortages. 

It's not like we're seeing this in one particular state, or like this is cities versus rural. This is something that almost every single school district is facing. … It is affecting everything, everywhere.

Joanna McFarland, co-founder, HopSkipDrive

The organization also has observed an increase in chronic absenteeism, a trend USA TODAY’s reporting has documented. Three in 4 respondents in HopSkipDrive’s 2023 survey said school transportation woes had a direct impact on student attendance.

“This is a suburban problem, this is an urban problem, this is a rural problem,” said Joanna McFarland, who co-founded HopSkipDrive almost a decade ago as a mom desperate for kid transportation services. “It's not like we're seeing this in one particular state, or like this is cities versus rural. This is something that almost every single school district is facing. … It is affecting everything, everywhere.”

Given lower-income and high-needs kids are more likely than their peers to rely on school buses to get to school, she said, those kids tend to be hardest hit. As HopSkipDrive has evolved, its services have increasingly centered in part on students who require tailored, enhanced, or varied routes – like children who are in foster care or don’t have stable housing. 

More than just Point A to Point B

Jodi Henderson McInerney, the executive director of a high-poverty charter school in Asbury Park, New Jersey, has witnessed the powerful role school buses play in kids’ achievement. Years ago, attendance at the school was inconsistent, so the school started surveying parents and students. “They just physically couldn’t get there,” Henderson McInerney said. 

So the school prioritized providing transportation and attendance immediately began to improve. And the trends were reinforced as the school became more intentional about who to put behind the wheel and elsewhere on the bus. The drivers who shuttle students around are familiar members of the community, and many speak the students’ home languages of Spanish or Creole. The school also puts resource officers on the buses to provide added security. In addition to the lack of buses and drivers, one of the main reasons kids weren’t showing up to school was the violence in some of their neighborhoods.

School bus drivers, advocates stress, do much more than getting kids from Point A to Point B.  

They see the neighborhoods families live in and observe students in a setting off campus. They hear what kids talk about amongst themselves. They witness and intervene when there’s bullying or other bad behavior. They’re entrusted with students’ physical safety and lives.

It’s a big responsibility, and the prerequisites for taking it on are many. Drivers typically have to get a commercial driver’s license and other certifications and undergo rigorous background checks, for example. Then there are the quirks of the job – the split-shift schedule, starting before dawn and sometimes ending after dark – and its relatively low pay.

Superintendent of Brevard Schools Mark Rendell started the first day of school early, starting at the south bus yard at 5:45 a.m. He was talking to school bus driver Edwin Lopez before Lopez started his route. Rendell was on his way to Discovery Elementary School .
Brevard County, Fla., schools Superintendent Mark Rendell started the first day of school early, starting at a school bus yard at 5:45 a.m. He was … Show more   

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, school bus drivers last year made a mean annual wage of $42,400 but that's assuming they worked full-time. Many do not, making less than $20 an hour.

For lots of prospective drivers, the sacrifices that come with working in school transportation just aren’t worth it. They instead choose to work for, say, Amazon or in other settings with children where they can work full-time. 

Henderson McInerney stressed a key reason her school has managed to attract and retain its drivers is that it makes the position full-time. When they’re not on the bus, drivers serve as hall monitors or lunchroom aides, or art class assistants. 

Bus driver positions are often part-time – and while many districts have raised pay and offered other incentives, such limitations mean shortages will persist. 

Hemphill, the mom in Washington, had to convert her role overseeing professional learning for a charter school into a remote position so she could drive her son to and from school. But still, it’s difficult. On top of school, Elijah has all kinds of appointments for different therapies and rides that schools often cover but, in Hemphill’s experience, unreliably. 

“It has become very, very frustrating to not be able to get what you know what you need for your child when you are trying to manage life, trying to have a livelihood,” said Hemphill, who’s written letters and testified and even run for her local school board. But given how persistent the problems seem to be, “you just have to figure out your better options.”

Bus driver shortages ‘a fact of life

HopSkipDrive founder McFarland says her company is one of those options. Described by some as the Uber of school transportation, the company facilitates ridesharing while also contracting with districts to help provide services for students with special needs and other children who are guaranteed by law to be transported to school. 

“This problem is a fact of life,” McFarland said. “So we have to come up with new ways to solve this problem, and be innovative around thinking about what is the right vehicle for each student to make sure that they get to school on time and ready to learn.”

Stacey Sweet has been working as a hairstylist for 40 years – and in the school transportation world for about three. Sweet, a HopSkipDrive driver – or “care driver,” as the company puts it – used to work for Uber and Lyft but says she much prefers driving kids. They’re more fun than adults, she said, and have no filter. She loves being able to connect with them and help them in ways no one else can, too – giving advice to a kid who opened up about being teased, for example, and serving as a silent ally to a teen en route to a therapy session. 

But more than anything, she said she appreciates knowing she’s providing an essential service. “They might not be able to get to school otherwise,” she said. 

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