News-Miner opinion: The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District finds itself in the uncomfortable position of suspending its regular school bus routes every other week because of a driver shortage exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, absenteeism and training delays.
The school district, which has faced sporadic route suspensions since August, is not alone in grappling with a school bus driver shortage, which is affecting districts across the nation, along with roughly 25 million students and their families.
Facing a shortage of its own, the Anchorage School District doubled up and consolidated bus routes this year, but then temporarily suspended bus service for certain routes until Nov. 19. In Massachusetts, the state has authorized putting hundreds of National Guard members behind the wheel in school buses. Ohio is weighing a similar action. A New Jersey district is offering $1,000 to some parents to drive their own children to school. Maryland is expediting school bus driver’s tests and license renewals.
A recent survey by the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the National School Transportation Association paints a grim picture.
It concluded every region of the nation is altering school transportation services because of the pandemic, and 51% of the survey’s 1,500 respondents described their bus driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate.” Three quarters of them said the shortage is getting “much worse” or “a little worse.” About two-thirds said the driver shortage is their “number one problem or concern.” Half said pay is a major factor in recruiting and retaining drivers, while 45% cited the time required to secure a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) and special endorsements to drive a vehicle carrying 16 or more persons.
The average age of bus drivers nationally is between 52 and 56. Their median pay was about $34,670 annually as of 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says.
Durham School Services, which last year won a 10-year contract to provide busing services for the Fairbanks school district, pays its drivers $23.44 to start.
Covid-19 is not going away anytime soon and presents its own thorny problems for district officials. Coming up with a busing solution for the Fairbanks school district will require a great deal of thinking outside the box. Should school bus drivers’ pay be increased to attract and retain drivers? Should parents be paid to haul their kids to class? What about getting the state involved to put the National Guard in buses? Should school classes be rotated, with one week in school followed by one week at home to ease the bus route strain? There is no easy answer.
A few things already are clear. While school bus routes in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District intermittently are shut down, there will be increased pressures on families to get their children to school. That means increased traffic around schools and schedule problems for parents who must juggle school and work.
While the district works toward a solution we would encourage patience on the part of already harried parents and compassion from employers whose workers may need a little leeway because of the disrupted bus schedules.
In the end, we are sure, there will be a workable solution. The trick is to still be smiling when it presents itself.