As a contracted school bus driver for Anne Arundel County, I am hopeful that our school bus transportation seems in pretty good shape for the start of school on August 28. The County and our contractors and bus drivers deserve some credit, given the mess we are seeing elsewhere. I am reminded though that it is still early.
When I skim the school bus horror stories online, the chronic need for drivers, I keep hearing that there is not one reason but several related to the shortage. I thought a list would be a good way to show the complexity of fixing or, at least, limiting the problem. After all, I hear from Transportation managers and journalists, but we don’t often hear anything from school bus drivers. We know what is going on in the front lines of school bus transportation, more so than those at the top of transportation.
No Driver Input
Most transportation departments use a top-down approach in that there is no driver buy-in. We may go for re-certification classes, but few involve us in the planning of routes and in helping transportation find solutions. We are talked at, and often belittled. We even had Transportation show videos of drivers doing something wrong without the drivers’ permission. That is a big, no, no.
Many drivers, like myself, are multi-professionals. We worked or still work other jobs. We have little choice. I have written to Transportation and offered my assistance for in-route planning and my skills as a child, adolescent, and teen therapist but never got a single response. Even our director says he is there for us, but you won’t find his phone number or email anywhere. I even offered to show up at schools to talk about school buses, etc., but only crickets.
We have skill sets that most managers seem to ignore. This hurts morale and leaves out possible solutions to any future driver shortage. Transportation fails to use the talent that they have at their fingertips.
I am fortunate in that pay around here for a school bus driver is at about $30.00 per hour, but such is a result of our severe shortage just two years ago. The cost of living here is very, very high, though. Still, some contractors in this area pay $19.00 per hour. Most contractors, those that provide 90% of school bus transportation in Anne Arundel County, offer 6 hours per day. Though considered full-time, the job pays part-time. Frederick County Public Schools has full-time positions but full-time means 25 hours per week at about $20 an hour. You can do the math. Transportation has been forced to deal with the low-pay drivers make by giving bonuses like Anne Arundel County is doing. Such bonuses, though, do not count as an increase in wages. They are also taxed heavily. Throughout the whole nation, school bus wages are still very low.
Often, the elephant in the room is not talked about: medical insurance. If I had to pick on thing that is creating the school bus driver shortage in the United States it would be the lack of good health insurance for drivers. This is something that most school districts and counties will not do under any circumstances, yet companies like Amazon can offer lower-cost health insurance. State officials have to create statewide health coverage for school bus drivers. I think this makes sense because we transport children, loads of them, and that makes our jobs as “truckers” very unique and important. If I cannot take care of my health, how am I supposed to take care of our kids?
I love kids and teens, but many people don’t. Some people like their own kids but no one else’s. Some people don’t even like their own kids. Managing 45-72 kids on a bus while driving through hostile traffic under various weather conditions can be a nightmare. Drivers need immense patience and understanding. Yes, the best of us become social workers on wheels. I am lucky that I am a social worker. Others can be just mean to kids. Nonetheless, kids can be very challenging, from the occasional vomit to them fighting or simply being kids can take a toll. My primary function is driving, but if you think three kids in an SUV is tough, try 63 middle schoolers in 34,000 pounds of steel on wheels.
Drug Tests and Background Requirements
Watching new drivers in training is somewhat like boot camp in the Army, maybe even special forces. We start out with 25 and, in the end, we may get one or two drivers. Much of this involves strict drug requirements, background, and even physical requirements (depending on the county), a permit test, and a new road test. We can be randomly tested at any time for alcohol or drug use. This is nothing to play with.
A positive test means no school bus driving for at least 10 years. A positive test likely results in losing our Commercial Driver’s License or CDL. A Class A or B license is very valuable and worth a good deal of money. But school bus drivers in Maryland have to have a DOT physical every year, not every two years like most truckers. Marijuana is absolutely forbidden, like any other street drug. I don’t drink or do any drugs whatsoever. This eliminates many candidates. And that is something we cannot change. The last thing you want is a slow-reacting driver that reeks with Marijuana. It should go without saying that if one works with kids, they need a clean background as well.
As for physical requirements, this is something that needs to be enforced. How the majority of our drivers pass a DOT physical is beyond me. They would not be able to rescue themselves from a bus let alone kids. In my opinion, plenty of health professionals are just letting drivers pass that are not fit to drive school buses. But imagine if these health professionals did actually screen drivers correctly? We’d have a real school bus shortage then.
Here is a funny/not-so-funny story. This event did not happen in Anne Arundel County because the County does not have a physical test to see if a school bus driver can remove a child from a bus. Other counties that will remain nameless do. At my one past training, we had to pick up a 50-pound bag of salt at the front of the bus, carry it to the back, and exit with it through the back emergency door. Of course, some people could not do that evacuation. We also had a front-door evacuation. Some complained that their knees were too bad to get down the steps.
Those of us that passed left to the classroom, and those that didn’t get the “special bag” of salt that, you know, weighs much less. Let’s be frank here. Kids weigh a lot more than 50 pounds. The average 10-year-old girl on my bus is going to weigh 80-100 pounds. I will have no trouble evacuating her because I exercise and am at my normal weight. Most people do not exercise and are not at a healthy weight. Some are elderly. This is another disaster waiting to happen. I am seeing people in their 20s that cannot get down steps easily.
Most truckers are on the road for long hours steadily. For school bus drivers, we work early mornings, have mid-day free, and then work afternoons. We may have sports trips in the evenings and weekends, and often that means huge layovers. I once spent 14 hours at a track and field event. I got paid for those hours but had no access to a bathroom. There is no way I am peeing outside a school bus. That’s a sex offense in many states. These trips don’t happen often, so we can feel like we worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. but with only 6 hours of pay. With the time in-between there is not much we can do to make money. We also need to keep that time open in case there is an early dismissal or weather or security event.
What I love about this job is the relationships I establish with kids, teens, and parents, even if it is a hi and bye. Sometimes, I never get a hi or bye back. Sometimes it takes a year or two for someone to say it back, but I know that when they do, I must have made a difference. I like the responsibility that I have hundreds of young people’s lives in my hands. It makes me feel valued, even if Transportation does not value its contracted school bus drivers.
Nonetheless, I am here because I want to serve my community. I was not happy making six figures and being miserable. Here, I wish I could make a living driving a school bus. That’s it. That is what I want. I also want to be part of a community. We are losing community everywhere. That is why community building is so important to me. I love this responsibility because every person on my bus matters to me. I want them to know that and try to tell them in different ways throughout the school year. I will always believe that people are better than bad.
Some people snark at me and say, “If it’s so bad, why don’t you just leave?” Because I care about who I drive, that’s why. I don’t want to let them down. I think we can change things, even though people don’t like change. We get comfortable in our dysfunction, just as Transportation has.
Being a school bus driver is a unique profession and an important one. Pay and benefits have to match the responsibility and requirements expected of us. Even then, there will be people that leave, that cannot handle it, but I hope this list gives readers a better understanding of what the issues really are when it comes to staffing bus drivers.
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues. Reach out with comments or questions.