By Andrew Deichler
Summer is nearly over, and students are heading back to school. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for workers in many school districts. Since the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have faced an unprecedented labor shortage. Many teachers, nurses, food service workers and especially bus drivers have left the education sector behind. School districts are scrambling to hire more workers and, in some cases, devise new strategies to compensate their staff.
Bus Driver Shortage
Perhaps nowhere has the labor shortage been more evident than with bus drivers. Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), the largest school district in Kentucky, was forced to completely shut down for over a week after an overhaul to its transportation system left some students on buses as late as 10 p.m. Marty Pollio, superintendent of JCPS, called the incident a “transportation disaster” in an apology to students, parents and staff members.
The shutdown came about after the school district changed bus routes and school start times in an attempt to address the bus driver shortage. “We had 20,000 kids miss time at the start of school last year because their buses were getting to school up to two hours late in the day,” explained Mark Hebert, communications manager for JCPS. “They were missing several periods of class. So, we changed the number of start times from two to nine, trying to spread out the buses a little bit more.”
JCPS lost even more bus drivers over the summer, which only added to a dire situation. “We tried to make changes to make the situation a little bit better,” Hebert said. “But when you have fewer bus drivers and longer routes, that makes it tough to get kids to school.”
In Washington, D.C., school buses are only used to transport students with disabilities. However, the driver shortage caused major disruptions during the 2022-2023 school year, with some students being delayed up to two hours. Some routes weren’t serviced at all on certain days.
But while the total number of students being transported (about 3,800) isn’t as big as in some districts, the distances students travel can be much greater. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education Division of Student Transportation (OSSE DOT) transports some students to and from as far away as Virginia and Baltimore.
Christina Grant, state superintendent of education, noted that “like 90 percent of school districts across the country,” OSSE is facing a shortage of bus drivers. “While we are deploying both near- and long-term strategies to provide timely transportation services to students and families, we know the shortage of bus drivers in the district will cause service delays for some families during the 2023-24 school year,” she said.
Schools have faced competition from corporate entities such as Amazon that pay drivers higher salaries than many schools can afford. Other bus drivers may have left the profession in favor of services like DoorDash and Uber that may not pay as well but allow them to set their own hours rather than adhere to the schools’ schedules.
Teachers Leaving the Profession
On the teaching side of the equation, many educators are also leaving their current positions. The reasons can vary, although school shootings, burnout and low salaries are the most common culprits. A survey by the EdWeek Research Center and Merrimack College found that 1 in 3 teachers is looking to leave the profession in the next two years.
A middle school teacher for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia who asked not to be named explained that many teachers feel burned out due to lack of administrative support. At her school, some administrators left during the previous school year. This put a strain on the teaching staff because many felt they could no longer adequately perform key tasks like disciplining students.
“I know the common sentiment among teachers was that we really felt abandoned,” she said. “There was no support and no investment from our administrative staff.” Prior to the start of the new school year, her school saw many teachers depart. Most transferred to other schools, some retired and a handful left the profession altogether. “I think that a lot of them left due to frustration with how things are being handled at the school,” the teacher said. “One of the issues last year was that we had kids who would just wander the halls, and nobody in administration would really do anything about it. They say, ‘We have to serve the kids,’ but if you have kids who are never physically in a classroom, how are you serving them?”
Addressing the Issues
The School District of Philadelphia attempted to address the labor shortage head-on over the past two months, holding several hiring events throughout the city. The school district aimed to fill about 1,000 open positions, including bus drivers, nurses, special education assistants and climate staff.
Similarly, OSSE DOT has held job fairs, offered $5,000 hiring bonuses to bus drivers and launched a number of initiatives to improve the process.
“Near-term strategies to serve our students include contracting with private transportation vendors to cover specific routes, offering attendance incentives to drivers and providing self-transportation reimbursement to families,” Grant explained. “Longer-term strategies include the launch of our commercial driver’s license academy to build a pipeline of bus drivers and continually working to improve route efficiency.”
Additionally, OSSE DOT aims to improve communication with families. The agency has added more personnel to answer calls at its Parent Resource Center and plans to release a mobile app that will allow parents to track buses and students.
Since shutting down, JCPS has implemented a number of measures to try to improve the situation, including contracting with a private transportation service for 20 additional school buses and drivers, adding more employees to the school bus information hotline and bus compound, deploying additional vehicles to pick up children who end up on the wrong buses, and adding an app for tracking bus locations. But it’s still a bit too early to know how effective these measures will be; elementary and middle school students returned to class on Aug. 18, while high school classes restarted on Aug. 21.
As for teachers, the Fairfax County middle school teacher noted that the school board has approved salary hikes. However, she noted that those increases may have been less of an incentive to get teachers to stay and more to keep up with the cost of living.