By John Rolfe
The few. The proud. The school bus drivers.
Apologies for stealing the Marines’ famous recruiting slogan, but it’s apropos when school districts across the land have reached a crisis point with student transportation. School trade associations say a national driver shortage is now the top problem for 65 percent of administrators responsible for getting kids to and from their institutions of learning. In New York State alone, many districts have 15 to 20 percent fewer drivers than they need.
There are now daily stories about delays, packed buses or no buses at all in many states. On September 3 in Georgia’s Savannah-Chatham County, 54 drivers refused to report to work and staged a protest to demand fair pay and better safety and communication from school boards. Covid-19 has contributed to some of the disruption. Seventy-three drivers in Chicago resigned in August to protest a vaccine mandate. Others elsewhere have quit rather than risk contracting the virus from their young passengers. (Many drivers are over 50 and more prone to serious illness.)
As the pilot of what I fondly call a big yellow madhouse, I can certainly say this is not a gig for the faint of heart, let alone everyone.
There is tremendous amount of responsibility and liability in ensuring the safety of other people’s kids, plus the stress of dealing with behavioral issues. The pay is low (around $20 an hour, sometimes much lower), hours are usually under eight per day, and training for a commercial driver’s license with a school bus certification can cost around $1,000. Some districts and private companies will train new hires, but you must still be background-checked, fingerprinted, and pass physical performance and random drug tests. You also need to know how to respond to medical emergencies and administer an epi-pen.
My district in Dutchess County in New York’s Hudson Valley is doing its best to keep rolling by combining two runs into one and using qualified mechanics and office staff members as drivers. By increasing pay to $30 an hour, it managed to handle a record number of summer school students. (Their grades had suffered as a result of the online classes that were required during the teeth of the pandemic.) Districts around the country are now considering or implementing raises. Meanwhile, a charter school in Delaware is offering to pay parents $700 to drive their own kids.
Ah, parents. I’ve been blessed with caring, supportive and generous ones on my routes during the three years I’ve been at the wheel, but the meddling, obstreperous variety is the bane of a bus driver’s existence. My district is doing its best to return to pre-pandemic normalcy, eliminating remote classes but requiring masks indoors (including on buses), which many parental units won’t like at all.
Anti-mask rage and even violence at schools and board of education meetings nationwide has been shocking and depressing. I recently saw a video from my district that contained basically a long parade of parents angrily ranting at board members. It really bothers me that people who are only trying to safeguard everyone’s health and safety are being attacked, often for little more than unnecessary political reasons. My colleagues and I will see if this petulant resistance by parents has contaminated many of their children. So far, it hasn't to a great extent.
One mother in my district called masks “an unnecessary hardship” on kids. I thought, “You want to know what real hardship is? Talk to the 15-year-old girl I drove to summer school this year.”
Alice (not her real name, as I am legally forbidden to divulge personal details of my passengers) was left brain-damaged and wheelchair-bound due to surgery complications. She still remembers her relatively normal life when she could speak without difficulty and walk, but she isn’t bitter. She surprised me with her sense of humor and wears a mask without complaint. Her parents, who have been through an ordeal that has been made even tougher by insurance payment denials displayed only grace and strength during the weeks I drove Alice to school. More of us surely need to keep things in perspective.
In general, the kids whom I and my colleagues are hauling have been behaving better than many adults. We occasionally have to remind students to put a mask on, pull one up, or keep their safe distance from each other, but they comply without making a fuss. What the young buggers won’t like this year are the required assigned seats for contact tracing purposes. (If students move around the bus and any later get sick, all on board will have to go into quarantine for two weeks.)
This year I’m slated to have 45 middle schoolers on my bus. I’m interested to see how many parents opt to drive their kids instead. Last school year, I had as few as one to three riders per trip between the delayed start of classes in October and when things returned to a greater degree of normalcy in February, though even then I had only about two-thirds my normal freight of 30 or more kids. It made for an oddly quiet year, but I expect this one to be much more tumultuous, especially if kids take cues from anti-mask parents.
There is a public perception that anyone can drive a school bus. Maybe so, but can they drive it safely and handle children calmly and with a clear head? This is a bona fide profession that requires training, self-discipline, attention to detail, the ability to think fast, and a degree of enjoyment in being around kids, even the ones who do their level best to drive you crackers. It’s a shame we aren’t thought of as important pros and paid accordingly.
So it’s no wonder we’re few in number, but we do take great pride in our work. I know drivers who go to extraordinary lengths to manage and care for the kids on their buses, often becoming one of the most positive influences in the lives of those children. We drivers are often forgotten or ignored in the ongoing war between parents and schools over how to proceed in the face of Covid, but you will surely miss us when we’re not there.
The courageous author at the wheel of his school bus. For all of the gory details, please visit his blog “Hellions, Mayhem & Brake Failure” on Celestialchuckle.com
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life.