In November, the Sahuarita Unified School District (SUSD) faced a challenge as they suspended 26 school bus routes due to a shortage of bus drivers. While all routes are back, both SUSD and the Continental Elementary School District are still grappling with a deficit in the number of drivers required for smooth operations.
National Trends in School Bus Driver Shortage
The shortage of school bus drivers is not confined to local districts but extends nationally. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, the number of school bus drivers remains significantly below pre-pandemic levels. In September 2023, there were 192,400 bus drivers working in K-12 schools, reflecting a 15% decrease from 2019.
Local District Strategies to Address Driver Shortage
Sahuarita Unified School District (SUSD)
Amber Woods, a spokesperson for SUSD, explained that last year’s temporary bus route suspensions were prompted by six drivers on medical leave and the loss of three drivers for other reasons. While routes resumed before winter break, SUSD still operates with fewer drivers than optimal.
Currently, SUSD has 29 full-time drivers and two in training, falling short of their full staffing goal of 32. Woods mentioned efforts to bridge the gap by utilizing other staff members, such as transportation office staff, mechanics, substitute drivers, and field trip drivers.
Despite progress, SUSD is proactively addressing future shortages by aiming to hire an additional five drivers. This strategic approach aims to ensure a more resilient and reliable bus service, emphasizing competitive wages and flexible schedules to attract new drivers.
Continental Elementary School District
Continental Elementary School District, a K-8 district with 11 drivers, faced challenges over the winter break when four part-time substitute drivers were lost. Director of Transportation Stephen Lane expressed the impact on coverage, especially when dealing with sick calls, vacation days, or emergencies.
While the district has not needed to adjust or suspend routes, Lane emphasized the need to increase the number of drivers for enhanced flexibility and improved routes. Currently at 11 drivers, Lane envisions returning to 15 drivers and having four spares, addressing existing route gaps and providing better coverage.
Challenges and Trends in Driver Recruitment
Stephen Lane from Continental highlighted challenges in recruiting new drivers locally and nationally. The demanding schedule of the position remains a persistent obstacle, making it challenging to attract individuals willing to commit to a split shift.
Lane shared his experience with applicants not returning calls for interviews, reflecting a broader struggle in the industry to find individuals comfortable with the unique demands of a school bus driver’s schedule.
Conclusion: Navigating Ongoing Challenges in School Bus Driver Recruitment and Retention
The shortage of school bus drivers persists, impacting local districts like SUSD and Continental Elementary School District. While both districts have implemented strategies to address immediate challenges, the national trend indicates an enduring struggle to recruit and retain drivers. Proactive measures, competitive incentives, and a focus on flexible scheduling emerge as crucial elements in addressing this ongoing issue and ensuring a reliable school bus service for communities.