Returning to school this fall was already filled with more anxiety than usual, thanks to the pandemic. But add to that another challenge in 2021 — an extreme bus driver shortage.
Local school officials explained that while there are many reasons why there are fewer bus drivers than usual this year, COVID-19 and everything that comes with it exacerbates the problem.
“It’s been terrible this year,” said Roberto Morales, transportation director at Desert Choice Transport, which offers bus service to many schools throughout the Valley, including those in Buckeye. “Part of it is COVID — people are concerned with crowding of buses.”
Masks are enforced on buses, which can be a challenge because they are sometimes optional in schools.
“It’s a big responsibility to drive our kids, and they don’t necessarily want to add that on top of it,” Morales said.
According to news reports, bus driver shortages are problematic nationwide. Many bus companies and school districts have been ramping up advertising to bring in more drivers. However, they must pass a background check and undergo specific behind-the-wheel plus classroom training to drive school buses. Training can take several weeks or more, depending on the driver’s experience.
“It’s become competitive, and we’re paying a premium for it,” he said.
There comes a point where the cost is too much for a bus service. At Desert Choice, he said they already offer some paid training and have increased hourly wages. But some drivers end up going to school districts that can offer more benefits.
Local charter schools are feeling the pinch of bus driver shortages. While not required to offer bus service like public schools do, many charter schools still want to accommodate families and alleviate vehicle traffic for drop-off and pickup.
The Odyssey Family of Schools — which are charter schools with elementary schools in Goodyear and Buckeye, plus the junior high and high schools in Buckeye — uses Desert Choice Transport to offer bus service to families for a fee, which covers approximately a third of the cost to the school. For “shuttle” service, which is a bus ride between campuses (elementary to high school/junior high), parents pay $32 a month for one child. For bus service that picks up and drops students at specific locations within communities, parents pay $54 monthly per child.
Odyssey had several buses lined up and ready for the school’s first day recently, but then came some unfortunate news.
“We ran into the bus driver shortage challenge late in the game,” explained Ken Olson, director of operations at Odyssey. A few days before the first day, two bus drivers contracted COVID-19, then another driver switched jobs to drive for a district rather than the transport company. Just like that, they were out three drivers.
That meant about 170 students could not ride the bus. Instead, many parents had to scramble to arrange transportation. The drop-off and pickup lines were flooded with more cars than usual.
Olson said as a result, they’ve been working with the city of Buckeye to modify the traffic light near the school for better traffic flow, plus the school added a new paved road around the back of the school to get cars off the street.
“We are trying,” he said. “But the bus shortage really hurt us.”
Thankfully, at the end of week two, drivers were back, plus a few more buses with drivers added. Now, traffic is flowing smoothly and safely.
“Everybody has been very understanding despite the circumstances,” Olson added. “Our ultimate goal is to keep everybody safe while getting them where they need to go.”
Litchfield Elementary School District has also been scrambling to make sure its 11,000 students have transportation options. As a public school district, it is required to offer bus services.
For Litchfield, it needs 75 staff to run transportation but were short about 18. It hasn’t been for lack of trying, explained Nathan Whyte, the district’s director of transportation.
Hiring drivers has been a challenge. The problem started before now, however.
A few years ago, Whyte noticed that many bus drivers were retiring or nearing retirement age, and it was getting harder to find new drivers to replace them.
“We don’t usually get drivers in their 20s; they’re usually in their 30s and older. Unfortunately, COVID stopped some people from applying.”
But because as a public school it must provide bus service, the district’s transportation department is stepping up. In fact, Whyte is driving buses when needed.
The district has been offering even more competitive wages with benefits to entice drivers, but training takes time. While they recruit, however, there are some bus route delays.
All in all, many parents and students are willing to live with the inconveniences, if it means going back to school in person this year.
“They really missed that time with each other,” Whyte said. “Parents have been most understanding.”