Shortage of bus drivers the latest staffing challenge for schools

In some districts in Oregon, routes are being combined, cut and parents are being paid to figure out alternatives.

By: - October 15, 2021 6:00 am

Alan Booth inspect his bus before setting off on Route 513. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A shortage of bus drivers in many parts of the state have shown just how valuable the ride to and from school is.

Districts and bus companies have been forced to combine or cancel routes, boost hourly pay and offer four-figure bonuses to attract drivers. 

In Eugene this week, parents were notified that rides on nine bus routes be cut beginning next Tuesday. 

The district will pay those parents up to $200 per month to figure out an alternative way to get their kids to school. To recruit new drivers, district officials are offering a 25% wage increase and bonuses of $500 per quarter for the remainder of the school year. 

In Hermiston, the Mid Columbia Bus Company contracts with the school district to transport students to and from school and for sports events.

Christie Livingston, a manager at the bus company, said they’ve often been forced to combine bus routes for students, rather than cutting them. This means that sometimes the students get home up to an hour later than normal. 

The bus company alerts district officials when this will happen who in turn notify parents.

“Getting people in the door has been difficult,” she said of hiring. “People are paranoid about Covid issues, concerned that students won’t keep their masks on.” 

Mid Columbia also couldn’t compete with unemployment benefits and higher paying jobs with full-time hours. 

“Any bus company can only guarantee 20 to 25 hours a week, and a lot of people can’t afford to work part time,” she said.

She said they’ve raised hourly wages by $3.50 an hour to $17 since the pandemic began last year, and are offering paid training for a Class B license needed to drive a bus. They’ll pay a $3,000 bonus for drivers after 30 days on the job, and $5,000 to drivers who walk in with a class B license already in hand.

In the Phoenix-Talent School District, bus driver shortages have been exacerbated by ongoing impacts of the Almeda fire from 2020. Not only were many of the students displaced, but so were many of the bus drivers.

“We had a bus driver crisis in the first place,” Superintendent Brent Barry said.

He has teamed up with neighboring Eagle Point School District to get students who’ve been displaced east from the fires to a meeting point where Phoenix-Talent bus drivers can come pick them up. 

Still, he used to have 27 school bus routes in the district. Now, they’re down to 11.

In Eugene, Monday will be a non-school day as the district prepares for a number of changes that the pandemic has brought, and that’ll give parents on the canceled routes an extra day to figure out how their kids will get to school for the unforeseen future.

“If you know anyone who wants to drive a bus, let’s talk,” said Kerry Delf, district chief of staff. 

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.