Numerous forces are coming together with creative solutions to make sure yellow buses taking children to school do not become a lasting victim of the COVID pandemic.
Even before COVID, school districts across the nation were striving to curb a growing crisis resulting from a shortage of bus drivers working for districts or private busing companies. When COVID hit and schools went remote, thousands of private school bus companies had to hang their “closed for business” signs and thousands of school bus drivers were furloughed. Some found themselves better off financially on unemployment and with COVID rescue funds; others realized it was time to retire rather than risk exposure to the virus or getting vaccinated. Only a portion of private companies survived, which wasn’t even close to meeting the demand once in-person classes resumed.
During COVID, some districts kept their own drivers busy dropping off meals, school materials, and equipment. As for private companies, some districts continued minimum payments on contracts in the hopes of keeping them afloat; others simply stopped paying and became the target of breach of contract lawsuits.
While moving to remote learning during COVID provided a reprieve from dealing with the bus driver shortage, the issue escalated and returned with a vengeance as school districts tried to resume on-site learning. Private school bus companies began canceling routes and entire contracts literally days before (or slightly after) the start of the school year. The issue continues today with some schools periodically returning to remote learning – not because of COVID, but due to the driver shortage.
More than two million children in New York ride a yellow school bus each day, according to the New York Association for Pupil Transportation. Of the state’s 700+ school districts, over 60% use private busing companies – an industry hit hard by coronavirus. Students get to school late, get home late and miss extracurricular activities, while parents constantly adjust to changing schedules and bussing needs.
The US Department of Education (DOE) has been working with the Department of Transportation and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on possible solutions, including providing greater flexibility for bus driver licensing, using American Rescue Plan funds to address transportation issues, and hosting webinars to help districts understand how to use federal assistance to recruit, retain, and hire additional staff.
States are also taking action.
In New York, Governor Hochul introduced a variety of measures including expediting the process for obtaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL); increasing the capacity to administer road tests and written exams; and for school staff who hold a CDL, the state set up expedited testing allowing them to drive vans and buses temporarily. The governor also launched an outreach program to more than 550,000 CDL holders to help school districts recruit drivers across the state. More is coming with CDL tests to be conducted at third-party locations and the “under the hood” portion of the CDL test being temporarily eliminated.
While it may seem legal recourse in the form of breach of contract lawsuits may be the main “go-to” option for school districts, it doesn’t appear to be the norm. Instead, there seems to be recognition that this could potentially exasperate issues stemming from a national crisis that’s beyond anyone vendor’s control. A National School Transportation Association’s survey conducted in March indicates “54% of school bus contractor members have more than a 10% driver shortage” – a shortage expected to last well beyond 2022.
There are other factors at play as well.
COVID sparked “the Great Resignation,” with many leaving their jobs or the workforce altogether. Fuel prices and inflation are driving up the costs of everything, including the pay workers are looking to receive. Bus driving companies are facing competition from other industries and employers (i.e., distribution centers) that provide better pay and benefits.
So, what have school districts and bussing companies done and what are they continuing to do to help turn things around?
A variety of things:
- Districts in at least 9 states asked for help from the National Guard.
- One district raised bus driver pay by about 30%, offering $21.67 to $29 an hour. A complimentary media blitz more than quadrupled driver interviews in days. What’s more, aids and drivers are offered bonuses: $500 a quarter for 95% attendance and $2,000 for anyone who worked through the pandemic. (Source: School Transportation News)
- A district invited teachers and administrators to drive for a fixed dollar payment per run. There were 77 applicants and 10 teachers who availed of the opportunity. The district offered the CDL training and benefited from not having to pay for additional benefits since the drivers were existing staff. (Source: School Transportation News)
- A private bussing business contacted competitors to provide substitute drivers while it trained new drivers (which takes 4 to 6 weeks) to no avail. It was able to work with another vendor to provide a later bus arrival option in the morning, a later afternoon bus, and an early morning drop-off option. Interestingly, this business is not increasing pay or offering bonuses because that just puts other private bussing companies in the same predicament. Instead, they are aggressively recruiting via all media and at job fairs. (Source: CT Insider)
- Some districts have temporarily returned to remote learning while their private bussing companies train new drivers.
- In one district, high school students living more than 7 miles from school were no longer transported but were given public transit bus passes for use on the county system, which 3,100 students now use.
- In Philadelphia, parents receive up to $300 a month for driving a child to and from school.
- In another state, one county is voting on whether to engage a van service available through the National Association of Pupil Transportation Collaborative to drive smaller groups of children and minimize route cancellations.
- This past February, the OHIO DOE issued its own Driver Shortage Playbook, reviewing potential federal funds that can help, as well as tactics like hiring a marketing agency for job postings, consolidating routes, reaching out to retirees, providing creative incentives, and more.
While there are no easy answers, there are a variety of responses that together appear to be slowly getting the wheels on the buses turning.
As always, school districts should seek legal counsel when it comes to changes in policies, protocols, or contracts. If you need help evaluating financial or accounting impacts, RBT CPAs can help. Give us a call, today.