As students return to class, local school districts dealing with bus driver shortages

As school swings back into session, districts nationwide and across the state are dealing with major bus driver shortages.

The good news is that hiring is up. The bad news — a lot of school districts are either barely covering their routes, or still extremely short.

It’s a profession, but it’s sought out by those with a passion.

“You develop that relationship and then you see them out in the community and they recognize you, ‘Hey Miss Anne!’” said Anne Panesko, a driver with the North Thurston School District. “I love it, to see the positive impact that we can have on children.”

Then COVID came, spurring a myriad of issues as classes went online and drivers went home, jobless.

“The pandemic definitely threw a huge wrench into the entire industry,” said Jamie Fleming, director of communication and research for Teamsters Local 174, the union representing roughly 400 school bus drivers around the Puget Sound. “You had this whole group of professional drivers that didn’t have a job to do for a year or two years, so many of them moved onto something else or retired from driving. So when school went back to being in-person, the pool of available drivers had shrunk dramatically.”

First Student, a company contracted by Seattle Public Schools to provide drivers, did what other private businesses and school districts had to do to try to recover — upping wages and benefits, offering incentives and bonuses, even changing licensing requirements and streamlining the application process to attract new drivers.

“Over the course of the last year, two years, the wages for our drivers have gone up, up, and up and up, and that’s just mainly because the companies had no choice but to raise the wages because they weren’t able to recruit,” Fleming said.

Even still, a new Education Week survey finds 68% of school districts are having a hard time hiring enough bus drivers.

HopSkipDrive’s 2022 State of School Transportation report blames the recovery lull on continued recruiting issues, pay, retirement, COVID concerns, and the loss of qualified drivers to the private sector.

In turn, 44% of schools nationwide say they’ve had to reduce the transportation services they offer.

Districts in Washington are no different. Compared to last year, things are better, but they’re still not great.

At the beginning of the 2021 school year, 15 of 19 school districts KIRO 7 talked to said they needed drivers badly.

This year, we reached out to those same districts to compare. Four reported full staffing, minus a few substitutes.

But 11 others are still struggling to bring drivers on board. For some, the need is manageable, but for others, it’s a bit tougher.

Despite every district telling KIRO 7 they are actively hiring and offering incentives, it’s been a slow ride — and you may feel some bumps along the way.

The most popular solutions include staggering bell schedules, consolidating or doubling routes, using other school employees to drive, and encouraging parents to find other transport. Some schools have even expanded walk boundaries to reduce the load.

All have left canceled routes as a very last resort, but unfortunately, it’s a route SPS has already had to take — the district has announced that some families will not have bus service at the start of the year.

Teamsters Local 174 says for SPS in particular, the staffing issues can be blamed on a decision to split their bus driver contract between two companies — one it has used for 30 years, First Student, and one that is brand new to the area called Zoom.

“Seattle school district set them up to fail, really,” said Fleming.

SPS says it will notify families affected by those canceled routes by Sept. 7.

As for other districts — you probably won’t be without a bus, but the one you get may be very full, the schedule may be very tight, and your child may be picked up or dropped off late or early.

“Drivers themselves are looking forward to, hopefully, a good school year, we just expect that the first few weeks will probably be rocky,” said Fleming. “Then again, they always are.”

If you still haven’t received your child’s bus schedule, a number of districts tell KIRO 7 that you’ll still get them before school starts and to keep checking your district’s website.

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