Editorial: School bus driver shortage a problem that can be solved

OK students, we have a problem to solve.

A bus driver wears a mask while driving students on the first day of the 2020-2021 school year at Westover Elementary School in Stamford, Conn. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

A bus driver wears a mask while driving students on the first day of the 2020-2021 school year at Westover Elementary School in Stamford, Conn. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

Tyler Sizemore/Hearst Connecticut Media

Not every problem has a solution (e.g., getting members of Congress to agree). This does not fall into that category.

The issue is the school bus driver shortage. The remedy is clear: Find enough qualified drivers and the crisis is over.

Easy enough, right?

Not so fast. Alas, qualified drivers have the option of taking other work routes these days, thanks to the likes of Uber and Lyft that offer more flexible schedules. And many existing drivers sought employment elsewhere after COVID erased their income completely for a spell.

Everyone is waiting for a remedy like a 9-year-old stranded on a corner until the bus finally (hopefully) arrives. Connecticut is not alone in dealing with this problem. It is also part of a crowd trying to find solutions. EdWeek Research Center held a summer survey revealing that 86 percent of respondents from around the United States reported a shortage of candidates.

Across the country, districts are reinventing recruitment and scheduling techniques. At its most extreme, some districts are staggering schedules to put members of the limited corps of drivers on double duty. Because of the added challenge of transporting students to extracurricular activities, some teams are shifting more games to weekends.

The extra scheduling work for administrators, athletic directors, bus companies and parents would be a formidable classroom exercise. Many have come up short, occasionally taking the steering wheel themselves to get the job done.

Some towns toyed with the concept of luring more parents to drive kids to school by reimbursing them, but drew little interest. On the recruitment end, districts have offered raises and signing bonuses. Many companies have succeeded in streamlining the training process down to six weeks, which was probably overdue anyway.

It’s another example of how every school day is a massive game of Jenga, relying on every piece to create a whole. Lose a bus driver and the result can be lost lessons, along with work for parents forced to scramble. And it’s been lingering for a while. Brookfield was so short a year ago that the athletic director started booking party buses.

A recent Hearst Connecticut Media story illustrated how surreal the outcome can be by recounting that the Killingly High School cross country team took the option to leave school at noon so members could arrive 3 ½ hours early for a meet. That shortage was exacerbated by five drivers who fell ill at the same time. It’s also a reminder that winter months could deliver seasonal ailments that could drive the demand even higher.

Bus companies do need to consider the reality that incentives may need to be added to keep the drivers they have. But somewhere out there are drivers for whom a pair of two-hour shifts might be ideal. More could be done, for example, to try to lure college students.

Our suggestion is for districts to channel the creativity of students to produce recruitment videos. Even if the venture fails, it could at least celebrate drivers who should not need a crisis to draw expressions of gratitude.