Schools canceling, combining bus routes amid driver shortage

Students at Van Buren Middle School in Kettering load onto their buses for the ride home Friday Jan. 21, 2022. Many school districts across our area seeing shortages in bus drivers. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

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Students at Van Buren Middle School in Kettering load onto their buses for the ride home Friday Jan. 21, 2022. Many school districts across our area seeing shortages in bus drivers. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Problem made worse by COVID illness; one school says trying to “make the impossible possible.”

School bus drivers have been in short supply locally for years, but COVID-related absences on top of that have led multiple districts to cancel some routes due to shortages. Now most districts are looking for more staff.

Fairborn schools announced on Monday morning that two bus routes would not be running on Monday, and last week, Springboro schools announced that due to shortages, two bus routes would be canceled on Thursday and Friday.

Centerville and Beavercreek schools have had to combine some bus routes in recent weeks, affecting families’ schedules. West Carrollton had to draft custodians and a maintenance worker to drive buses in order to get kids to school.

Scott Marshall, a spokesman for Springboro Schools, said the worst staff shortages are for substitute teachers, bus drivers, food service workers and educational assistants. Marshall said most of those shortages were starting before COVID-19 but have been pushed to the front in the last two years.

“We have been working to recruit additional hires, in order to compensate for the continued strain COVID-19 has caused throughout our entire staff,” he said.

Bus drivers in Ohio must have a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, and the American Trucking Associations, Inc., says CDL-holders are in short supply. In 2021, the national trade association for the trucking industry estimated a shortage of about 80,000 drivers in the country and noted in the same report that the average age of truck drivers trends older.

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While Ohio has temporarily relaxed its standards for substitute teachers — a high school diploma is OK, rather than the previously required college degree — the standard for being a bus driver in Ohio has not changed, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

School bus drivers must be at least 21 with a minimum of two years driving experience, must pass drug tests and background checks, must go through classroom and on-road training and meet multiple other qualifications.

To combat the CDL shortage, the Ohio Department of Higher Education recently started a program that would give financial aid to students who want a CDL through specific institutions.

But illness among already-licensed drivers is also contributing to the shortages, according to some districts.

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Sarah Swan, a spokeswoman for Centerville schools, said the district has about 110 transportation staff, plus additional full-time administrators and mechanics who are licensed and can drive buses if needed. On top of that, Centerville has substitute bus drivers if other drivers are sick. But the recent COVID-19 surge has affected busing, she said.

“Over the past couple of weeks, we have had to combine or double up routes on certain days due to staff illnesses, but we have never not provided a transportation option for a student,” Swan said.

Meanwhile, districts are still looking for drivers. Anaka Bushman, a spokeswoman for Beavercreek schools, said the district is constantly recruiting new drivers and has needed to merge routes some days to get all students to school.

“It has always been difficult to attract quality candidates that can meet the required standards for a school bus driver, but this year has been especially difficult,” said Greg Thompson, Beavercreek’s director of business services. “In general, I believe there are fewer people working and the competition for those quality candidates has become even more challenging.”

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Todd Silverthorn, transportation supervisor at Kettering schools, said many of the Kettering transportation staff members have been out sick due to COVID-19, the flu or other illnesses.

“Plus with non-COVID related sickness or surgeries that are currently on the books, our staff is spread pretty thin,” Silverthorn said. “I will say that our transportation team pulls together to make the impossible possible.”

School bus driver pay varies from district to district, but is often in the $16-$24 per hour range. Part of the hiring challenge is the surge in warehouse and associated trucking jobs opening locally. School bus drivers usually have a split shift between early morning and mid-afternoon, and often do not get a full eight hours per day.

Silverthorn said the district is working to retain staff, but what has helped the most is guaranteeing a certain number of hours for substitute drivers.

“What has helped us here in Kettering is hiring our ‘sub drivers’ in as unassigned route drivers and guaranteeing them a certain amount of hours per day which would qualify them for benefits,” he said. “They can also sign up for activity trips to earn additional money.”

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