Kentucky School Advocate
By Brenna R. Kelly
For 11 years, Tina Shoemake drove a bus while raising her daughters and attending college to become a teacher.
“I thought I was through my bus driving career when I started teaching,” said Shoemake, who teaches 7th grade English at Russellville Independent Middle School. But Shoemake kept her commercial driver’s license, which is required to drive a school bus, in case she needed to fill in or drive students to events.
This school year, she has been needed more than ever.
“At the beginning of the year it was pretty much daily, the transportation director would ask me if I could run a route,” she said. “Especially when we had all the positive cases.”
While districts across the state have struggled to fill bus driver’s seats for years, this school year the shortage has been exacerbated by quarantines and illness from the more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, drivers quitting for fear of catching the virus and a tight labor market.
“Every year we have said we have a shortage, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Elisa Hanley, pupil transportation branch manager for the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). “Districts are really struggling on what to do.”
At the end of August, Kentucky school districts were short at least 922 full-time bus drivers, according to a KDE survey in which 122 of the 169 districts that transport students responded. In addition to full-time drivers, districts also reported needing 249 part-time drivers, 383 full-time substitute drivers, 373 monitors and 40 technicians in the survey which ran from Aug. 24 to Sept. 1.
The problem isn’t Kentucky’s alone. More than half of the country’s school transportation coordinators described the bus driver shortage this year as “severe” or “desperate,” in a survey conducted by the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), the National Association for Pupil Transportation, and the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS).
The survey showed that every region of the country had altered service due to COVID-19 – 79% of respondents in the Northeast said they have altered service, 77% in the Midwest, 66% percent in the South and 80% in the West.
In addition to COVID-19, school transportation officials say retirements, pay and the amount of training needed all contribute to the shortage.
“It’s really the perfect storm,” Hanley said. “I mean you have COVID and then you have retirements and then you have on top of that the ability to get the permits.”
Russellville Independent 7th grade English teacher Tina Shoemake planned to drive a school bus every day of the week following fall break after a bus driver retired and there were no candidates for the job. (Provided by Russellville Ind.)
Earlier this year the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet reduced driver’s license testing locations from one site in every county to opening regional locations, she said. Before starting on-the-road training, prospective drivers must first pass the CDL permit test at one of the regional offices. “The state police have been phenomenal assisting us in getting appointments, but right now they're three weeks out, so somebody comes in today they cannot get an appointment for three weeks,” Hanley said.
While trying to recruit and train drivers, often offering hiring bonuses or increased hourly wages, districts have been scrambling to find any employees with CDLs, doubling routes and, in some instances, begging parents to drive their children to school.
“I don’t know that there’s a magic button,” Hanley said.A chess game
When the Delta variant caused coronavirus cases to surge just before the start of the school year, some older drivers decided to retire or quit, said Chip Jenkins, transportation director of Warren County Schools.
“We probably lost 10 to 12 in the first couple of weeks, even before school started so that hit really badly,” he said. Since school started, other drivers have been quarantined or become sick, including one who died of the virus. The district’s bus drivers drove buses in the funeral procession and students paid tribute standing along the route.
“Every day we had to scramble for several hours just to try to call other drivers, and say ‘Hey, can you pick up this route when you get done with yours?” he said. “And so, it was like a chess game, we had to make moves every day to make sure we could maximize what we could do. It’s been very challenging.”
When three drivers quit just before the start of the school year in Meade County, Transportation Director Donna Foushee knew she needed a plan – she had one driver for every route, but no backups.
She assigned each driver a buddy – if a driver’s buddy is absent they know to immediately start the absent driver’s route as soon as they drop off their last student. Longer routes were paired with shorter routes to try to get students to school sooner. Double routes mean some students will be late and will have to stay later in the afternoon until a bus can come back to get them.
“We had to work with our attendance people, we had to work with our lunchrooms, so we make sure they get breakfast,” Foushee said.
While she hoped she wouldn’t need the buddy plan, the district implemented it on the second day of school.
“I knew this was going to be an issue and I’m like, ‘what can we do?’ And it’s a very simple plan,” she said. “I think we were just lucky enough that we could see it coming.” CDL holders pitching in
To combat the shortage, districts are asking anyone with a CDL to fill in as bus drivers. In Warren County, Jenkins has been driving, along with his assistant director and the area directors.
Next door in Barren County, Superintendent Bo Matthews, is also pitching in. Matthews has had a CDL since 1990 when he was a paraprofessional and the junior high school needed someone to drive a bus to sporting events.
“I do drive special occasions or groups, but here lately, it’s been out of necessity because we just didn't have anybody else,” he said. Recently the district was down six drivers, meaning Matthews was driving two or three times a week.
“A shirt and tie is usually the uniform that I’ve got on when I get called. (The students) think that’s kind of funny, a lot of whispering goes on, ‘who is that?’ because I’m wearing a mask. But I introduce myself and they’re always super helpful to me. I’ve not had a single discipline issue.”
In eastern Kentucky, Owsley County Superintendent Tim Bobrowski is working toward his CDL.
“I don’t ever want to ask anybody to do something that I don’t want to do myself,” he said. “So, this is one of those deals where if we get in a bind, and we need drivers due to quarantine or actual COVID that I could be available.”
The district started the school year with a driver shortage and if his CDL was complete, Bobrowski said he would frequently be driving. The district has asked parents to drive their students if they can to cut down on possible quarantines.
The process has also shown Bobrowski how long it can take and the amount of training required to drive a bus.
“It’s not just about the paperwork and bookwork, it’s about the testing and of course now we have to drive to Breathitt County before we can even do our first level testing,” he said.
So, he’s not surprised that some people don’t complete the training or decide they can make the same amount or more money doing something else. He anticipates the entire process will take him five to six months.
Now that he’s seen the process, Bobrowski said one solution to getting more drivers would be streamlining the process.
“I don’t know that a bus driver really needs to know the inner workings of the engine and the system and all that,” he said. “I think the bus driver needs to be focused on driving the kids.”
It’s an idea that is gaining momentum. In September, U.S. Rep. Joe Morelle, a Democrat representing New York’s 25th District, sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg asking him to waive the CDL requirement for school bus drivers and instead establish a school bus-specific license in order to address the bus driver shortage.
Morelle’s plan would waive the repair-oriented, under-the-hood vehicle training that is part of the CDL training. At least two of the school transportation associations, the NSTA and NASDPTS, support the change, according to School Transportation News.
“Our bus drivers are committed to the work and are committed to the school and the kids. They really do care for them,” he said. “I just feel like if there’s anything we could do to make it easier.”
As someone with Type I Diabetes, Bobrowski would have been prohibited from getting a CDL before the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration implemented a new rule in November 2018 that allowed people with insulin-treated Diabetes to get a CDL.
“I don’t know how many people know about that,” he said.
Bobrowski said even with change, he might not have thought about getting his CDL if it wasn’t for this year’s dire situation.
“When I saw the need there, that’s when I said I need to step up and do something different,” said Bobrowski who plans to be able to drive a bus by Thanksgiving.Return to normal coming
Transportation directors say as the number of coronavirus cases begins to fall and recruiting efforts bring in some new drivers, they expect the situation to stabilize later this fall.
Warren County now has several drivers going through training and Jenkins hopes to be able to eventually build up to 20 full-time substitute drivers.
“I think in the weeks to come and we get through this semester, if COVID will keep low we’ll be able to replenish and be back to pretty normal. We hope to anyway,” he said.
Foushee has seen success recruiting drivers in Meade County from booths at the state fair and other events. She’s also gotten driver applicants from the large following on the Meade County Schools Transportation Facebook page where she posts delay announcements and positive messages about bus drivers.
As of late September, Foushee had nine drivers who had passed the permit test and three more in a training class.
“So, we’re hoping by the end of October, if nothing else changes, we should be pretty close to fully staffed,” she said.
The situation has also improved in Russellville Independent where Shoemake has been called on to drive less frequently than at the beginning of the school year. However, she’s already been asked to drive every day during the week the district returned from Fall Break.
“We have a driver leaving, they’re retiring, and they have not had any applicants for the job,” she said.
That means Shoemake will once again get up at 4:30 a.m., go to her school, get on a bus to pick up students then return to school to teach all day. Because the timing is off, her principal will have to find a substitute for the first hour of the school day.
After she teaches all day, she’ll leave at 2:45 p.m. for her afternoon route and finish her day at school between 4:30 or 5 p.m.
“It makes for a long day,” she said. But Shoemake doesn’t consider her double-duty as uncommon.
“There’s been a lot of people in our district who have stepped up in different roles and jumped in. It’s just been a crazy year,” she said. “It’s unusual, it’s one like we’ve never seen before. We’ve got wonderful people and we’ve done an amazing job. Bottom line, we take care of our kids.”