Bus Driver Shortage Has Most Ohio School Districts Scrambling
And the pandemic has only made the problem worse.
The start of the school year has been a rough ride for many kids who haven’t been on a regular schedule for more than a year, and for districts that are struggling with thousands of COVID cases among students and staff.
But there’s another problem that’s grinding school operations across the state toward a stop – a bus driver shortage.
A bus pulling away from the curb sounds like the end of summer to some 800,000 Ohio kids and their parents. Ohio’s school buses travel a million miles each school day. But for many districts, there aren’t enough drivers to keep all the buses running.
A new study from a coalition of national school transportation groups says every region of the country is dealing with a bus driver shortage, with just over half describing their shortage as “severe” or “desperate”.
“We normally have around 15,000 routes on a daily basis in the state of Ohio. And right now we're running somewhere around 2-3% short of having all of those routes covered," said Doug Palmer, the transportation consultant for the Ohio School Boards Association.
Since Ohio law requires public schools to transport all eligible students – their own as well as private and charter school students – Palmer said. Ohio does more bus service than any other state. He’s talked to nearly every district, and all are reporting having to make alternative plans to get kids to school.
“Either by doubling up on routes or finding a mechanic to drive or another secretary to drive or a coach to drive. I mean, they are scraping the bottom," Palmer said. "And we have now reached the point where we have no more fill-ins for regular drivers.”
Palmer said a crush of recent retirements has left more bus driver seats open than people to fill them.
That’s the story in Westerville north of Columbus, where Randy Snyder manages the bus fleet and its drivers.
“We travel the equivalent of Los Angeles to New York about three times a day total across our fleet. We have 131 daily routes that we serve students with," Snyder said. "We have just over 10,000 students assigned to our daily routes.”
Westerville has warned its 15,500 kids and their parents that one or more schools closing for the day is a highly possible scenario to deal with the shortage.
Snyder said that’s one of several challenging options.
“In order to keep from having to close the entire district on any given day might be to delay a particular building by an hour," Snyder said. "Another strategy that we have is to potentially have a school not in session on a particular day so that those drivers can cover other needs.”
Palmer said districts can eliminate high school busing, or shut down routes that are closer than two miles from school, and run buses on more shifts – meaning drivers would do four or five trips in both the morning and afternoon.
But state law says a district can’t just cancel all bus service for the day but keep schools open, as has happened in other states.
The pandemic has also been a contributing factor in the shortage, which is the case the commercial trucking industry as well. Palmer said it hit hard in the Adams County Ohio Valley Schools in southern Ohio, one of the state’s largest rural districts.
“They were running 42 routes last year. They had 42 drivers and 13 decided to retire this summer than to face these mounting pressures of COVID," Palmer said. "It's not fun driving with a mask on and dealing with that, and the angry people that don't want their children to wear masks. And they found just too much pressure.”
That’s left that district with three routes uncovered every day.
While the debate over mask mandates in schools rages, school bus drivers and their passengers are under a federal order to wear masks.
But nearly a third of the drivers in the Athens City Schools either tested positive or had to quarantine. That district covers 90 square miles. With so few drivers, the Athens superintendent had to close school for a week.
Randy Snyder in Westerville said all this shows just how important bus drivers are to the state’s more than 600 school districts, as well as private and charter schools, and the families in all of them.
“It is definitely a very important role and part of the education system. It is access to school," Snyder said. "We have a banner outside at our exit gate that says, through this gate past the finest drivers in the world. And we truly do.”
The national school transportation survey showed the average time to hire a bus driver is 16 days, which means the shortage may not be solved quickly.
One of the ideas before the task force looking into the problem in Ohio is offering longer shifts to other school support staff to include driving buses.