LAKEWOOD — When a school bus route lacks a driver in the Lakewood School District, a transportation dispatcher often must leave the office to drive the route. In turn, administrative staff step in for the dispatcher.
Superintendent Scott Peacock said bus driver shortages can cause a domino effect that transforms the administrative office into the transportation hub.
“It just means that everybody’s responsibility shifts, and the priority becomes what’s most immediately important,” Peacock said. “In this case, it’s helping kids get home.”
That’s true for several school districts in Snohomish County, as schools continue to deal with bus driver shortages that were magnified by the pandemic. School officials say the problem seems to have eased up this year compared to last, but drivers — and especially substitutes — are still coveted.
Lakewood started the school year with enough staff to cover every one of its 20 bus routes with a primary driver. However, the district doesn’t have any substitute drivers on hand. If just one driver calls in sick, staffing has to shift.
“We have five (drivers) right now in training. That alone is huge,” Peacock said. “We never had five at a time last year. In fact, we only had a few during the course of the year that ever indicated an interest in driving.”
In Mukilteo, the school district’s Director of Transportation and Safety Cindy Steigerwald likes to run with 96 main drivers and between 15 and 20 substitute drivers on hand, she said. Right now, she’s got seven routes without a main driver and just a handful of subs.
Steigerwald expects to be fully staffed by October. She said the district added about 10 drivers over the summer and will bring on six more this fall. Another 10 were still in the interview process as of last week, she said.
“I don’t know why, but I will just say it feels like there was definitely a change in our applicants,” Steigerwald said. “We’ve seen a lot more applicants over the last three months. It’s just really gradually increased, and they’ve been really strong candidates.”
One of the biggest challenges for backfilling drivers and subs right now is the lengthy training process, Mukilteo schools spokesperson Diane Bradford said.
School bus drivers need their commercial drivers license to operate school buses. Bradford said there are 40 hours of coursework “before they even step foot on the bus.” Then, there’s about a week of ride-alongs, where a driver-in-training rides as a passenger on a route, followed by a week where the trainee drives with a supervisior watching. In total, it can take a month or more to train one driver.
“That’s part of the challenge: It’s no quick thing,” Bradford said. “We can hire lots of people, but it takes time. It takes several weeks before they are trained and ready to go.”
On average in Snohomish County, school bus drivers make between $25 and $32 an hour, depending on experience. But it’s difficult for an employee to wait a month before paychecks start rolling in, said Peacock, the Lakewood superintendent. His district has started offering a $1,000 sign-on bonus, paid out in installments over the course of their training, to help new drivers get through a month without regular income. The final bonus payment usually comes in after a new driver has been on the route a few months.
Other districts provide similar incentives, and many cover training costs in full, including the price for a CDL.
Still, transportation is one department that is historically “tough” to staff, Snohomish School District Superintendent Kent Kultgen said. As of Sept. 15, his district had 11 open positions.
“This isn’t really new,” Kultgen said of the driver shortage. “This has always been a struggle, of having the proper number of bus drivers and subs. …. The pandemic really, really put a strain on it.”
Kultgen said his staff is putting extra effort into recruiting drivers, including setting up booths at farmers markets and back-to-school events.
“We used to just advertise and maybe have a job fair, and we’d be able to fill our positions,” he said. “Now we are having to go out to where the folks are to advertise. The farmers markets, the back-to-school nights. … Before, we didn’t do that.”
In the Marysville School District, a staff shortage left four routes without assigned drivers Monday. That required four drivers to do their route and immediately take on a second route.
The situation should improve soon as four recently hired drivers are getting trained, said Marysville school spokesperson Jodi Runyon.
Ideally, she said, the district needs another seven to 10 drivers to ensure there will be enough people available to fill routes should someone be out for any reason. Unfortunately, a job fair last weekend drew more people interested in other district jobs than driving a school bus, she said.
As districts work to hire more drivers, school staff in other departments contend with the consequences of shortages.
When bus drivers take on two routes, they usually stagger schedules to get all students to school. Sometimes that means students end up arriving or leaving late, said Justin Fox-Bailey, the president of the Snohomish teachers union.
“I have not talked to folks to count the minutes, but I know there are buses that are showing up significantly late, which means classroom teachers, staff and administrators are out watching kids,” Fox-Bailey said. “It’s one thing when it’s September and the weather is lovely. But what happens when it starts to get cold or rainy or dark?”
Staff shortages also affect athletics and field trips that rely on daytime buses and, usually, substitute drivers. Even if a district is fully staffed on regular routes, it may lack the drivers needed to take extracurricular trips. Schools can charter buses, but that’s an expensive alternative that isn’t sustainable without changing budgets, Fox-Bailey said.
“This shortage of bus drivers is having an impact on the choices available to us for our students, the choices that we get to make as educators and the programs that are available for families,” he said.
Larry Francois, superintendent for the Northwest Educational Service District 189 that covers Snohomish County, said COVID “added another layer of complexity and dimension” to bus driver shortages that were happening well before the pandemic.
“What I’ve heard anecdotally is that many drivers were driving bus as a retirement job, and with COVID have opted — from a safety perspective — to go back to retirement,” Francois said.
As the prevalence of the virus drops, drivers may return to their gigs with the yellow buses.
Peacock, the Lakewood superintendent, said he is optimistic that will bear true in his district and others.
“We’re hoping this year, we’ll be in a better place,” Peacock said. “… We are hoping we won’t see those high levels of absenteeism as we saw last year with people getting COVID. We hopefully won’t see the transmission we saw last year.”
Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.