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Local school districts face bus driver shortage, like nation

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Chad Francis waits for students to board the bus at Griffin Creek Elementary school in Medford on Friday. Francis has been driving school buses for nine years with the district.

Griffin Creek Elementary School parent Aime Crutchley used to have her kids ride the bus to school five days a week. But these days, it’s down to two — Mondays and Fridays.

The change is partly because of work and the kids’ participation in extracurricular activity, but also due to her view that riding the bus has become “difficult” due to the shortage of drivers.

“As a parent, I was also trying to do my part and ease that stress for my community,” Crutchley said. “If I have the ability to pick up my children or have them do an after-school activity so they don’t have to ride the bus, then I will do my part.”

The Rogue Valley is not the only place that is experiencing a shortage of bus drivers; the nation is, too. The number of drivers has fallen so low in Massachusetts that the state deployed the National Guard to drive children to school, and Ohio is also reportedly considering that approach.

The Mail Tribune spoke with parents — some of whom declined to go on-the-record — and administrators from local school districts who say the bus driver shortage is real.

The newspaper also spoke with First Student, a Cincinnati-based bus provider that works with many of the valley’s schools to provide transportation. Jay Brock, a spokesperson for the company, said the industry was dealing with a bus driver shortage even before the pandemic.

“The pandemic has only exacerbated the situation,” he wrote in an email. “We are no different than so many other job sectors that are struggling to fill openings, including retail, restaurants and hotels.”

Driver shortage

Brad Earl, chief operations officer for the Medford School District, said his district had about 100 bus drivers, and now it's down to half that number.

About 6,000 students attending Medford schools were riding a bus before the shortage began; today, it’s closer to 3,000-3,500.

“It’s frustrating for us, it’s frustrating for parents, it’s frustrating for students, for sure,” Earl said.

Brent Barry, superintendent of Phoenix-Talent School District, said his district, too, is down half of the drivers from the 30 it would need to make a full fleet.

“It’s crisis mode now,” he said.

Walt Davenport, superintendent for Central Point School District, said his district is 10 drivers short of what it needs. But additional drivers are being trained.

“A little bit of the challenge is waiting until they get signed off on all their training,” he said.

Davenport spoke of the precarious situation his district is in with the bus driver shortage. That is because of the pandemic and the chance of one calling in sick due to COVID-19.

“It’s just a razor’s edge situation where losing one more driver can really impact hundreds of kids and compound kids getting to school on time and make buses even more crowded,” he said. “We are in desperate need of bus drivers, bottom line.”

Shortage factors

While Medford School District bus drivers delivered meals to kids and community organizations when there was all distance learning, it was not the same amount of work as before the pandemic, Earl said. Couple that with the unemployment benefits that were available to drivers, and you have the ingredients for a driver shortage.

Brock acknowledged a number of drivers decided not to return to work this school year.

“We are working with the Medford School District to minimize the impact to families,” he wrote.

Barry said that in the Phoenix-Talent district, once bus drivers went to part-time status during the pandemic many of them left to take other jobs with more competitive wages.

But when it comes to the bus driver shortage, his district had another driving factor: the Almeda fire, which displaced nine of them, according to Barry.

That loss comes as Phoenix-Talent buses many kids from all over the valley, because many of them are living farther away because of that fire, he said.

Impact on kids and families

Fewer bus drivers has led many districts to change bus routes or eliminate them.

The Medford School District cut down the number of bus stops, leading some students to walk farther to a bus than normal, according to Earl. What’s more, transportation of student athletes to games during school stopped.

Davenport said his district, Central Point, has had to combine routes, which has led to longer travel times for students to and from school, as well as packed buses — something officials don’t want during the pandemic.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to folks where we’re trying to maintain six feet of distance at school but here we have them on buses,” Davenport said.

Central Point is seeing more parents transport students than in previous years, but thousands of students are still riding the bus, according to the superintendent.

While it waits for its driver supply to come back, Medford is encouraging other methods to get kids to school, Earl said. This includes “walking buses” of parents, volunteers and students, bike-riding and carpooling.

“Most of our schools were not designed to have hundreds of cars show up, either, so there’s a little bit of tension there about having neighborhood streets blocked as we have parents trying to drop kids off and pick them up,” Earl said. “We’re getting better about it.”

Bringing in the National Guard to drive buses in Oregon is a solution Earl has heard, based on meetings with other educators he attended recently.

“Who knows? We could end up looking at the National Guard in our state as well,” he said.

Attracting more drivers

Brock said his company, First Student, is actively recruiting, hiring and training new drivers.

“We offer significant incentives, including an aggressive hourly rate and sign-on bonuses of $6,500 for CDL drivers and $4,000 for non-CDL drivers,” he wrote. “In addition, all training is paid, and an employee referral bonus of $2,500 is available.”

The incentives seem to be working when it comes to Medford bus drivers.

“We do have quite a few drivers in the pipeline ... so it’s helping the situation,” Earl said.

The bus ride

The importance of students riding a bus to school cannot be overstated if you ask the leaders of the valley’s educational system.

“The bus driver is the first adult they see in the school system,” Davenport said. “The school day starts for them the moment they set foot on that bus, so it’s vitally important we have friendly, healthy, professional drivers to get our kids to school in a safe way and have their day start with a smile on their face — even though we can’t see them with the mask.”

More than anything, Crutchley feels bad for current bus drivers who navigate a shortage of their peers.

“I know their bus loads have gotten a lot bigger, there are more stops,” she said. “But they’ve been able to manage it. I know it’s been rough for them. But my kiddos are getting home safe.”