MURRAY – While the U.S. continues to face a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the transportation directors for both local school districts say they have managed well despite occasionally being a bit stretched thin.

At the beginning of September, NPR reported on a joint survey conducted by the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), and the National School Transportation Association (NSTA). The survey found that every region of the country was altering transportation service because of COVID, with 79% of respondents in the Northeast saying they had altered service, 77% in the Midwest, 66% percent in the South and 80% in the West.

Fifty-one percent of respondents described their driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate,” and roughly three-quarters of all respondents (78%) had indicated at that time that the school bus driver shortage was getting “much worse” or “a little worse.” Roughly two-thirds of all respondents (65%) indicated that bus driver shortage was their No. 1 problem or concern, while only 1% of respondents indicated that bus driver shortage was not a problem for them.

“As school districts across the country return to in-person learning and COVID continues to have an impact on education in general and school transportation scheduling and logistics in particular, the shortage of school bus drivers has become conspicuous,” said NAPT Executive Director Mike Martin in a press release. “But let’s be clear – this is not a new problem. Nor it is easy to solve.”

“While the industry seems to struggle with driver shortages each year, this year’s shortage has a different feel to it and having the data to really understand it is invaluable,” NASDPTS Executive Director Ronna Weber said in the release. “We hear anecdotal reports all the time, but being able to point to real information will ensure we are responding to this situation in the best manner possible for our members.” 

Local school districts have struggled like any other district at times, but the transportation directors for both districts said they have managed to continue all routes this year.

“Bus drivers are such an important part of our success,” said Calloway County Superintendent Tres Settle. “They are the first person from our schools that many kids see each day. It’s always so important for kids to start the day off right, and our drivers are a huge part of that. Our bus drivers are committed to the safety of their students and I can’t thank them enough for the job they do.”

Brian Collier took over as director of transportation for Calloway County Schools on July 1 after former director Tommy Futrell retired. He said the district currently has 37 routes, which includes K-12 routes, five preschool routes and three special needs routes. He said all those routes are thankfully covered by drivers right now, but he has a smaller number of full-time substitute drivers than usual.

“I’m down to just one full-time sub, where before, there have been three full-time subs hired,” Collier said. “‘Full-time subs means that driver isn’t assigned a route, but rather, they are either driving, subbing or they’re riding a route to learn it to be able to sub.”

Right now, Collier is planning to add five driver positions and three monitor positions. Collier said he was a full-time sub for the last four years, so his position was vacated when he became director. Another full-time sub retired, and Collier said he had to assign the last full-time sub to a permanent route this year. While his department is still looking to fill the remaining full-time sub positions, three routes were “absorbed” into other routes. Collier said this arrangement is hopefully temporary because that has added some time onto the other routes.

“Those three routes I absorbed actually affected six buses that were neighboring them, so it’s extended rides for several of our students,” Collier said. “Two of those routes that were absorbed were at East Calloway Elementary, and one was at North. As I get drivers hired back, my goal is to be able to ‘unabsorb’ those routes and replace those drivers and replace those routes so it spreads the ride time and the route numbers out a little bit more.”

Collier said some drivers have gotten the coronavirus and have to quarantine for a period of time. Collier sometimes drives routes himself, and he said other gaps have been filled by existing staff who are trained and licensed, such as Josh McKeel, the district’s director of pupil personnel, and Travis Anderson, principal of the Calloway County Day Treatment Center. Collier said one thing that makes filling positions difficult is how extensive the hiring and training process is. If a prospective employee doesn’t have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) or have any previous driving experience, they must go through a CAN (Child Abuse/Neglect Registry) background check, an FBI and Kentucky State Police background check, pre-employment drug testing, a Kentucky Transportation Cabinet physical and a TB skin test, Collier said. 

Collier said preschool bus routes are required by federal law to have a monitor on board, and the Kentucky Department of Education recommends having one on special needs buses as well. Collier said one way the district is trying to recruit and keep drivers is to hire people as monitors to begin so they can be on the payroll and get on-the-bus experience while they are going through the longer driver certification process.

“It can be a two-to-three-month process, depending on how quick you can jump through the hoops and get the items back and progress through the classroom training, which is about 30 hours, and then you have on-the-road training, which is about 30 hours altogether,” Collier said. “(Bringing people on as monitors) helps us keep people, because what we find is that a lot of times, people will get into the process or get halfway through the classroom or get scared of the bus for whatever reason and back out. So we’re hoping that the incentive of getting on with us as a monitor and getting that bus experience (helps encourage them) instead of having to wait to get certified to get a check. Even though it’s not driving, they’re still on a bus, they’re still interacting, they’re still monitoring with kids and they’re able to see a driver in action and see what it actually looks like. So we’ve had pretty good success with that.”

Jay Bordeaux, director of transportation for the Murray Independent School District, said the district is doing well so far with keeping enough bus drivers on staff. Of course, the bus garage always has to be prepared for things to go wrong, but he said the district has been fortunate throughout the pandemic.

“We have a full slate of drivers and we have been able to maintain that throughout the pandemic so far,” Bordeaux said. “Things are going fine right now. I’m always a phone call away from having to go from Plan A to Plan B or Plan C. We’ve been very fortunate that our team has been able to work together and fill in holes where needed.

“We haven’t had too many close calls (of not having enough drivers), but with the COVID situation, if you’re not feeling well, it’s district policy that we go get tested and then we have to wait for the results, so they have to quarantined. That leads to some holes here and there, but overall, we’ve been able to hold our own.”

Bordeaux said he usually drives a route if a sudden absence comes up. The district has some bus routes that service all three schools, but there are also four preschool routes that run Monday through Thursday. That means that if there is a vacancy to fill on a Friday, a preschool driver can fill in.

“We’ve got a great team here, and everybody steps up whenever needed,” Bordeaux said. “If it wasn’t for the transportation team here being as good as they are, we wouldn’t be able to pull off what we do at times.”

MISD Superintendent Coy Samons was out of town Monday and was unavailable for comment.