‘Perfect storm’ for bus driver shortage as school year approaches

School buses

School buses set idle on Monday, July 20, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Less than four weeks until the start of classes for students in the Appoquinimink School District in southern New Castle County, school administrators are desperate to find bus drivers.

A shortage of drivers is a problem being seen in school districts around the country, but it’s especially challenging in the rapidly growing Middletown-Odessa-Townsend area the Appoquinimink district covers. The area’s population could top the city of Wilmington’s by 2030.

“We’re up 252 students already,” Superintendent Matt Burrows said of the student population’s growth over last year. “Over the next three to four weeks, we usually grow a hundred a week if the data stays the same. It’s hard to then route buses when you could be adding 300 students into the different routes.”

The district has been facing a shrinking pool of drivers in recent years. Even as the pandemic kept many students studying in a hybrid mix of in-person and online classes last year, the district still struggled to get students to school.

More than 24 “double-back” routes were created to meet the need. That means a driver would deliver a full load of students to the school before heading back out on a second route to collect another bus full of kids.

“Students that have to ride the bus are going to be late for school. … Once the bus drops off one set of kids, it would have to go back out and pick up another set of kids,” Burrows said.

Kids riding the second leg of a double-back route would likely be late getting back home as well as getting to school.

The trouble filling school bus driver positions is similar to what other employers have seen as businesses have reopened after the pandemic lockdown.

School bus drivers have to meet a number of qualifications to be hired. That includes completing a background check and undergoing pre-employment drug testing. They also need to have a commercial driver’s license, which districts or their contractors will provide training for. Obviously a good driving record is also a must.

“I think we’ve hit the perfect storm,” said school board member Richard Forsten. “I mean, has anybody been to a restaurant recently? … Half the tables aren’t open because they don’t have people to wait tables. And if you go down to the beach, there’s a ‘Help wanted’ sign in every single store.”

Currently, the district is 16 drivers short of what it needs. But that need is compounded because each of those driver slots accounts for an elementary school route and a middle or high school route. The start times at various schools are staggered to make room for the dual routes.

“So, if you want to be technical, it’s actually 32 buses that are filled with students that do not have a driver currently,” said district transportation supervisor Stacey McIntosh. “My fear is we might not be able to get all of them covered even running them late. So, we need to be prepared for that.”

She said the district is “going to beg and plead” for people to get behind the wheel.

That pleading includes offering incentives for new drivers.

“For any new driver that would sign on with us, they would get a one-time $200 bonus. If they would then stay with us for the full year, they would get a $1,000 bonus, $500 in December, $500 at the end of the [school] year,” said Tom Poehlmann, director of safety, security and operations for the district.

New hires would also be eligible for monthly attendance bonuses of $300 per month.

But all those incentives haven’t really worked, at least not yet.

“We’ve currently received no drivers from the advertisement and the incentives, not one person,” Poehlmann said. “We have had 10 calls, inquiries. Maybe something from that will happen.”

Delaware’s school districts typically contract with bus companies who actually hire the drivers. Appoquinimink’s contractors include First Student, which is advertising job openings starting at $14.50 an hour, which would increase to $20 an hour after four months.

The state Department of Education’s Public School Transportation Committee is reevaluating the funding formula in an effort to alleviate staffing shortages.

But the clock is ticking.

“September 8 is when we start school. And we need drivers yesterday,” Burrows said. “So if you’re willing or able to drive, we ask you to please contact us, and we will put you in touch with contractors. It’s a rewarding job, but we need people to do it.”

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