School bus driver shortage getting worse

School bus driver shortage getting worse
All across the country and right here at home - a shortage in school bus drivers is only getting worse. Now, fears about the COVID-19 pandemic are only exacerbating the problem. (Source: WALB)

SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) - This school year, one of the biggest concerns for parents is school bus safety.

Right now, buses will be at about 50 percent capacity to help guarantee social distancing requirements. That could also mean more routes; but, many districts already have a shortage of drivers.

Bossier Schools just wrapped up one training course last week and looks to hire even more drivers with the next class in October. The school district will start this school year still in need of about 4 to 5 drivers, despite plans to use every single substitute driver.

So there's little margin for error, according to Theresa Giles with Bossier's transportation department:

“We always manage to get the routes covered. And we’re a little short at the beginning of the school year. As far as illness, someone gets sick, that’s our problem,” Giles said. “We can get the routes covered. But we don’t have anybody to, you know, fill in if someone is ill.”

The challenges are immense for drivers. Just ask 22-year school bus veteran Janelle Dougharty.

She told us some drivers are concerned about all the extra cleaning that will be required. But she's not.

“I pick up, take ‘em to the high school. Pick up from high school and take them to the Vo-Tech school. So in-between each one I have to be cleaning.”

Dougharty figures she'll be wiping down the inside of her school bus as many as 8 times a day.

So, why is she still driving after all these years?

"I love it. You've got to love the kids. And you've got to love driving. It's real simple."

Becoming a driver isn’t so simple, typically taking 4 to 6 weeks, largely because of the requirements.

Those include fingerprinting, a drug screening, a physical, a background check and 40 hours of training, not to mention a commercial driver's license.

Unlike some districts, Bossier Schools' transportation department explained that they pay for everything except DMV requirements.

That means from hiring to driving the district invests nearly $500 dollars for every new driver.

Theresa Giles with the transportation department has a suggestion for those thinking about applying to become a driver.

"Give it a try. It really is the best full-time benefit, part-time job you'll ever have."

With 52 million Americans filing for jobless benefits in less than 5 months, you might think that could help fill all or most of the school bus driver openings across the country and right here at home. That’s not happening, at least not yet, because of all the time and money it takes to apply.

Typically, when you hear about school bus driver shortages there are all kinds of explanations or theories on the main reasons for it.

Maybe they should have just asked Dougharty, who told us she hears that answer all the time.

"They're not paying what they think should be paid for a sub. So, they think they're not going to do it for that."

There are so many uncertainties right now, like whether the 15,000 students that Bossier Parish school buses typically transport every day, will drop substantially because of staggered school days.

Then there’s the whole issue of whether or not more parents will choose to drive their kids to school, at least early in the school year.

But regardless of all the challenges ahead, Dougharty explained why she has no complaints.

“I get paid good for what I do. You get up, pick up the kids, you take ‘em to school, you unload ‘em, you go do what ya gotta do. You come back in the afternoon, you pick ‘em up, you take ‘em,” Dougharty said.

“You don’t have no one looking over your head, a boss screaming and yelling at you all day long, and you get paid good, I feel like. I’ll never complain about the pay.”

In Caddo Parish, their school district is still down 20-to-30 school bus drivers. That figure is expected to shrink once their latest class of new recruits is ready to drive.

Elsewhere, in Marshall, Texas, they need 7 drivers. In Texarkana, Arkansas, they say there is a shortage and they’re advertising now to fill those positions.

In Red River Parish, they’re down one substitute driver at the moment.

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