After the first day of school in Louisville, Kentucky, Patrick Lester could not find his 6-year-old daughter, Adara.
After he waited for 40 minutes at the bus stop, a phone call to the school revealed that she had been put on another bus, Lester said. But school staff members could not confirm whether she had been dropped off, nor could they reach the driver.
His partner, Heather Gray, left work and drove around the neighborhood, looking for Adara. Finally, she said, she saw a bus driving away from a street corner, and “it’s my daughter standing there.”
“We just moved here — she doesn’t know the neighborhood,” Gray explained. “And the bus driver had kicked her off and told her to walk home.”
A bus driver shortage that has plagued the country’s school districts for years came to a head in Louisville. After that first chaotic day, the city’s school system, Jefferson County Public Schools, which serves about 100,000 students, abruptly halted classes until at least Friday for elementary and middle school students, and Monday for high school students.
Marty Pollio, the district superintendent, said at a news conference Monday that the district will work to provide bus drivers with everything they need for success, including increasing wages.
“We will continue to have more and more problems throughout this nation unless we address our significant bus driver issue,” he said.
While the situation in Louisville seemed extreme, many school districts have been contending with a shortage of bus drivers, driven by low pay, inconvenient hours and lingering effects of the pandemic.
In Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools district, which includes Tampa, there are still 203 bus driver vacancies even though school has already begun, with delays on the first two days of school last week, according to Tanya Arja, chief of communications for the district.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, Albemarle County Public Schools notified the families of 1,000 children — total enrollment is 14,000 — that there was no driver for their route, but that school would go on as scheduled.
Normally, there are up to 6,000 students who are transported a day, but this year the district received requests for 10,000, said Phil Giaramita, public affairs and strategic communications officer for Albemarle Public Schools.
And in Chicago, the school district is battling its driver shortage by offering free Ventra cards — which are used for the city’s public transit — for qualifying students and one companion. About half of the district’s bus driver positions are vacant.
The search for bus drivers has been frustrating. The Stillwater Public Schools district in central Oklahoma still has five full-time positions open, said Barry Fuxa, its public relations and communications coordinator.
As in many districts, low pay and odd hours are the biggest issues. Starting pay last year for Stillwater bus drivers was $12.38 an hour, with six-hour days and split morning and afternoon shifts that did not allow enough time for the driver to hold another job.
This year, Fuxa said, the district raised the pay for its bus drivers to $16.57 an hour. But with no budget for advertising the open positions, the district has found it difficult to spread the word, especially with nearby school districts competing for the same workers.
“You’re kind of tapping into a dry well at a certain point,” Fuxa said. “There’s only so much you can do.”
Tomás Fret, president of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which covers New York City and its New York suburbs, said that low wages were a drawback, but also that the job has also become more difficult, noting that there have been more confrontations with parents and students.
Fret, who started driving school buses in 1996, said, “When I started the job, workers were able to send their kids to college.”
Erica Groshen, a senior economics adviser at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said raising pay is the most straightforward way to find more bus drivers, but schools may need to turn to creative solutions.
“Employers want to improve retention,” she said. “Offering a way for the workers to have some voice and interviewing workers as they exit can be a very important way for them to figure out solutions.”
Public school officials in Jefferson County were trying their own creative solution — which helped lead to the opening day fiasco. They had hired AlphaRoute, a Boston-area engineering firm that specializes in routing software, to design new routes for the school year.
The goal, the district said, was to adjust for fewer drivers, but the effort resulted in longer routes.
“We recognize that the situation was extremely regrettable and likely caused by the significant changes to bus routing which were made necessary by the district’s severe driver shortage,” AlphaRoute said.
The district said it was working to overhaul its routes. As of now, there have not been discussions of changing its contract with AlphaRoute, which was paid $265,000 to design this year’s routes. The district has worked with the company since 2021.
Until school resumes, many families must find child care. Lester said a grandmother has helped watch his children. At home, the children have been kept busy with activity sheets and reading to make sure they are prepared when classes start.
Starr Martin, another parent in Jefferson County, said she was nervous last week while trying to locate her 9-year-old son, who had been put on the wrong bus.
Martin said the school board had not thought the changes through.
“There’s going to be hiccups on the first day,” she said, “but I think somebody needs to be held accountable for what happened.”
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