BENTONVILLE, Ark. (NewsNation Now) — As COVID-19 vaccine mandates continue to go into effect in several states, some are worried the school bus driver shortage could get even worse if drivers refuse to get the shot. Hundreds of drivers threatened to quit over new vaccine mandates going into effect this week in New York and Connecticut.
As a result, administrators are breathing a sigh of relief that hasn’t happened—yet. In a recent National Association for Pupil Transporation survey, more than half of student-transportation coordinators nationwide described their school bus driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate.”
The nationwide shortage of bus drivers complicated the start of a school year, delaying the start of some schools and forcing school districts to find creative ways to fill vacancies. Many school districts raised the starting pay, paid for training, and offered thousands in signing and retention bonuses.
For example, in New Jersey, one district is offering $23 an hour starting pay. “We’ve had drivers leave our district to go to others that pay more; now we’re hoping some will leave other districts to come to us,” said Kyle Newton, Anderson District 5 spokesperson.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul pleaded to expedite the licensing process to speed up hiring. And Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker activated the National Guard, 90 members currently training to operate transport vans. Schools in Deptford, New Jersey, shifted to early dismissal to get all students home.
Part of the nationwide scramble to adjust can also be felt in Arkansas. “We have been able to consolidate a few of our routes in order to make it work with our current number of bus drivers, but we have no leeway if someone calls in sick,” said Gravette School District Superintendent Maribel Childress.
“We’re double- and triple-running some of our routes which may cause students to get home later in the evening, but we do want to provide a ride home for any student who needs it,” said Mike McClure, the director of transportation of Fayetteville Public Schools.
The ripple effect is also impacting many after-school sporting events. “Many of those drivers aren’t available until after 4:45, so any of our athletic events that leave earlier, we’re going to have trouble finding a driver to take that,” said Paw Paw Public Schools Superintendent Rick Reo.
School districts face problems. The national average pay for school bus drivers is $17 an hour, and they need a commercial driver’s license, just like a tractor-trailer driver. But on average, truck drivers make $24 an hour, and there’s a shortage of them right now, too.