Facing COVID-19 challenges, reopening schools need months to ramp up school transportation
Written by Aylin Cook
As COVID-19 vaccinations ramp up, many American school districts are preparing to resume at least modified in-person learning. Many school districts; however, will need time to ramp up transportation to and from school.
While some smaller districts reported they could quickly support pupil transportation, larger school districts expect delays. According to HopSkipDrive’s 2021 State of School Transportation, 55% of respondents working in large school districts (25,000 – 100,000 students) believe it could take three months or more to resume regular operations.
In this article, we’ll highlight some of the transportation challenges school districts are looking to address quickly and effectively.
The ongoing bus driver shortage
When HopSkipDrive conducted its annual transportation survey, nearly four-fifths of respondents believed that their transportation plans would be constrained by existing bus driver shortages. Plus, 81% of respondents reported that COVID-19 has exacerbated the already-challenging shortage.
One reason for the shortage? Relatively low pay.
“It takes too long to train bus drivers, and they receive too little pay,” said one anonymous pupil transportation executive. Another director of transportation agreed that low pay is a problem. “Driving students is a specialized, professional position,” he said. “Drivers should be paid accordingly.”
Another reason: a relatively short shift, especially compared to contracts with companies like UPS or Amazon.
“It’s hard to find individuals that would like to drive a school bus,” said Melody C., a director of transportation. “Only being able to offer a contract for five hours a day is a major factor.”
It could take time to get enough drivers hired, trained and on the road—especially since social distancing protocols allow for fewer students on each school bus. Robert T., a director of transportation, believes he’ll need “three to four times the resources to get the same number of students to school.”
Another concern that could slow down student transportation: what to do when a bus driver calls out sick. There’s a severe lack of substitute bus drivers, who are quite challenging to hire, train and retain.
The high-risk status of many bus drivers
The average age for any bus driver is 52.3, and survey respondents mentioned repeatedly that many of their school district’s drivers were senior citizens. These drivers often began driving a school bus after they retired from their regular careers. Now, due to their age, they’re at high risk to get severely ill from COVID-19.
Rosalyn V., a transportation executive, believed the risk of contracting COVID-19 would prevent some bus drivers from returning to work.
“We employ a highly susceptible staff and fear is real for them,” she said.
Another respondent, Director of Transportation Tracy H., agreed.
“Older drivers, for fear of health issues, are retiring or leaving in droves,” she said. “The schools don’t pay enough to get the young workers.”
Complicated hybrid schedules and alternate bell times
Even as school districts resume in-person learning, school days will be quite different—and often, quite shorter—than they were pre-pandemic. Hybrid learning means students will engage in both in-person and remote learning.
Alternate bell schedules usually refer to shortened school days, which will be increasingly common this school year. These shorter days and hybrid schedules will make student transportation more complicated than usual in 2021.
Social distancing and other regulations on school buses
The CDC issued strict guidelines for student and driver safety on school buses. Guidelines include:
- improving ventilation by opening windows
- having students sit one per row, with entire rows skipped
- providing masks for all students and drivers who can wear them safely
- regularly disinfecting surfaces
- offering hand sanitizers to students
These regulations sound simple, but many children struggle to practice social distancing. Transportation professionals are worried.
“Ensuring students follow guidelines, like social distancing, is a major concern,” said Maria B., who works in school transportation.
Social distancing also reduces the number of children who can safely ride on a bus. If there aren’t enough open seats to transport students safely, school districts will need to find alternatives, and quickly. Whether through adding more bus routes, requiring parents to request and reserve space on the bus, or contracting with third-party vendors, school districts are looking for additional ways to shuttle students to class.
Providing vulnerable students with the services they need
All children need transportation to and from school, even if a traditional school bus cannot accommodate them. This is especially true of vulnerable groups, such as students experiencing homelessness.
The economy has changed drastically, especially for those who work in the service industry. There is a nationwide housing crisis. Some transportation professionals anticipate that more students will be experiencing homelessness when in-person learning resumes.
“We believe, due to COVID-19, our homeless population will significantly increase,” said Dawnett W., a Director of Transportation. “We will have a bigger need for alternative transportation solutions.”
Other students need alternative transportation, too. Foster students are guaranteed transportation to and from their school of origin, even if they move to a new home. Also, students with disabilities or other special needs are sometimes offered appropriate transportation through individualized education programs, or IEPs.
“There will always be some students whose needs we cannot accommodate with our own resources,” said Albert F., a Director of Transportation.
For school districts faced with increased demand for alternative transportation, services like HopSkipDrive can fill in the gaps. By providing consistently reliable and safe rides to and from school, all children—regardless of their vulnerabilities—can get back on track with in-person learning sooner.