Pandemic worsens bus driver shortage at Arizona schools

Aug 24, 2021, 5:53 AM | Updated: 2:13 pm
(AP Photo/Iris Samuels)...
(AP Photo/Iris Samuels)
(AP Photo/Iris Samuels)

PHOENIX – Schools across Arizona have for years struggled to fill bus driver positions, but the pandemic has made matters worse.

“I think everybody in some way, shape or form is experiencing what they might consider a severe shortage,” said Jason Nelson, transportation supervisor for the Kyrene School District in the East Valley.

“I don’t know one district that would claim that they’re fully staffed.”

His school district usually is short one or two bus drivers at the start of the school year. But right now, it has at least seven bus driver positions open. For the Florence Unified School District, the vacancies are even worse.

Shannon Weber, the district’s transportation director, said they’re looking to hire up to 14 drivers. That’s about double the number of vacancies usually available at this time of year.

Weber said she believes the numerous credentials bus drivers need to get and keep renewing plus the responsibility that comes with looking after students pushes some people away from the profession.

“It’s not easy work,” she said. “Then you add the pandemic to that, and there are some additional sanitization and mitigation requirements obviously to keep everyone safe. But it requires them to do just one more thing.”

The pay and having to split up the day for pickup and drop-off also makes it difficult to attract bus drivers.

“More than once people have told me, ‘I can go work for Chick-fil-A for almost the same money,’ and they don’t have to have a split schedule,” Weber said.

But for retirees who want to supplement their income, the hours and pay work well. However, many of them have been stepping down because of COVID-19 concerns.

“They just really weren’t comfortable,” Nelson said. “And even their doctors were saying, ‘You know what, you really shouldn’t be out there in the workforce.’”

With so many vacancies, drivers are having to double up on bus routes, which can lead to crowded buses and delays in kids getting home on time.

The Peoria Unified School District on Aug. 13 shared a message on Facebook that said, “Some bus routes may experience a delay in pick-up today due to a shortage of drivers. Thanks for being patient at the bus stop!”

“That’s not uncommon,” Nelson said. “The whole reason we’re here is to get the kids to and from where they need to go, but at some point resources just run out.”

The shortage also impacts bus drivers’ ability to take students on field trips and athletes to sporting events.

“As transportation folks, we just usually make it happen,” Weber said. “And it’s getting harder and harder to do that.”

To attract drivers, schools are offering incentives and highlighting the health and retirement benefits that are available.

Nelson pointed out the Kyrene district started offering a $2-an-hour stipend for bus drivers, which he said appears to be attracting applicants.

He added there are “a lot of perks” that come with being a school bus driver that people may not realize.

For Weber, the profession is rewarding.

“It’s more than just being a bus driver,” she said. “You see those kids, and you’re the first and the last face that they see every day. You’re building relationships with your community by driving that yellow school bus.”

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Pandemic worsens bus driver shortage at Arizona schools