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Shortage of bus drivers growing worse for many school districts

Many school systems cannot find enough drivers to cover all of their routes.

School districts throughout the United States are struggling to find school bus drivers, a challenge that has worsened with low unemployment and a strong economy.

The Associated Press reports that the problem has become so severe that some districts are offering sign-up bonuses for new drivers, and others have to rely on mechanics, custodians and other school employees to fill the gap. For parents and students, the shortage can mean longer waits for a ride to school and more crowded buses.

The shortage stems from a variety of factors, including limited work hours and high barriers to entry. Drivers generally need a commercial driver’s license, which requires training, sometimes without pay, says Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association of Pupil Transportation.

“Unless you have something to fill in the gaps (between drives), you can’t make the money you need to support your family,” Martin says. “These days, most people are looking for some kind of regular, full-time hours.”

In Iowa’s Southeast Polk Community School District, transportation director Daniel Schultz says the persistent shortage has grown worse because there aren’t as many retired farmers, a group that commonly took the job for extra income. Now, the district relies on mostly retirees and stay-at-home parents to transport roughly 3,400 students to and from school each day.

Even with administrators and bus mechanics filling in, the shortage has also resulted in fewer routes, more children waiting at each stop, and crowded buses.

In St. Paul, Minn., some students are arriving late to school because fill-in drivers aren’t familiar with the normal routes. A school district in Ypsilanti, Mich., had to cancel a day of school because there weren’t enough substitute drivers to cover for sick drivers.

In Hawaii last year, a driver shortage in Maui forced state officials suspend bus rides for some students and limit rides for some others. The district offered free monthly bus passes on local public transportation.

In Lincoln, Neb., some positions remain unfilled even after the local school district offered $1,000 signing bonuses for new hires and a guaranteed six-hour day for all drivers. Officials also recruited an Omaha-based contractor to provide extra drivers when needed to help transport roughly 4,000 students a day. The district faced a shortage of 32 drivers this year but has reduced it to eight, transportation director Ryan Robley says.

Martin, of the National Association of Pupil Transportation, says many districts require split morning and afternoon shifts for their drivers, which some consider a hassle. Keeping an eye on noisy children while facing away from them can be difficult as well.

“It really takes a special type of personality” to deal with the issues, Martin says. “Many people just don’t have a burning desire to face those aspects of the job.

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