What’s Really Causing the Decimation of the School Bus Industry

File photo courtesy JD Hardin

In the following op-ed, Zina Ronca, a driver supervisor for West Grove, Pa.-based Duvall Bus Services, points out how, although the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a harsh blow to school bus companies and the pupil transportation industry in general, contract negotiations have been a growing challenge, as has a lack of support and respect for drivers from schools, students, and parents. As a result, amid all-virtual and hybrid learning schedules at schools, drivers are leaving for other employment options.

“COVID-19 is what just may have broken the back of the school bus transportation industry,” Ronca notes, but “the school bus industry was in trouble” even prior to the pandemic.

The op-ed below expresses the author’s opinions and not necessarily those of School Bus Fleet.

There was a time when being a school bus driver, transporting students five days a week, brought respect. With everything going on today, that is not the case too much anymore.

Over the last five years, sadly, I have watched things change so much for school bus drivers and contractors. I have watched as contactors are taking a beating on school contacts, payables, and pricing. I have watched as drivers are disrespected more and more by parents, school administrators, and on social media.

I have been asking contactors and drivers a lot of questions and what I hear is depressing. Yes, times are difficult right now with COVID-19. COVID-19 is what just may have broken the back of the school bus industry. The industry was in trouble before, but the pandemic has added to the problem.

I have taken the time to talk to school bus owners and in many conversations, I am hearing similar stories. Before COVID-19, many contactors were dealing with school districts wanting more for less. Many contactors were dealing with a lack of or no support from the schools they were contracted to, which meant drivers were not getting support with problems on their buses.

Contractors were also dealing with school districts wanting drivers to be removed from the driver’s seat just to avoid dealing with problems. (Keep in mind many of these drivers did nothing wrong.) The school districts thought that was the better solution, instead of dealing with students and parents.

Some school districts think school bus drivers are plentiful.

Safety has also taken a back seat for some school districts. This is one point that came up in almost every conversation I had with owners. Drivers are being expected to drive in unsafe student situations. That unsafe student situation can cause a driver to have an accident while dealing with a continuous behavior issue that distracts the driver from the road.

Another sad issue is how parents perceive school bus drivers. I have often had to hear from individuals what they think of school bus drivers. And, school bus owners have told me some of the phone calls they receive about drivers are cruel and harsh.

There will always be a small percentage of drivers that you have to let go, because this is not the job for them, but when I hear people speaking negatively about school bus drivers, I speak up and ask them if they can do better. I offer to train them to drive a school bus. That conversation usually ends quickly. Many people do not understand how much work an individual had to do to become a school bus driver.

Since COVID-19, the school bus industry has been decimated. The driver shortage is worse than before the pandemic. Relationships between school districts and contactors have been deteriorating as contractors were trying to get paid. Unfortunately, some have not been paid at all or had to take a percentage of their initial pay.

Some long-standing relationships between contractors and school districts are irreparable. Some owners I talked to were dumbfounded when they were told that they were thieves for charging so much for transportation, and they should be happy they still have a contract. Some contractors responded with “You will not have transportation anymore. We have shut our business down and sold the buses.”

Before COVID-19 is done there will be more bus companies going out of business. The shortage will not be just drivers, but contactors as well.

Also, let us throw in the federal government for not recognizing the entire bus industry needs help.

As the pandemic causes virtual learning and hybrid schedules to continue, drivers are choosing to take employment elsewhere. Many school bus drivers have their own reasons for leaving the industry, but the strongest ones are needing a job to pay bills, being tired of the disrespect from administrators and parents, not having support to do their job safely, and just feeling unappreciated.

At the end of COVID-19, many school districts are going to find they will not have school buses to transport their students.

There is one statement I have read many times over the years: “school busing is a privilege for regular-education students, not a right.”

The privilege has been abused far too long. When we will be needed, some of us will not be there anymore.

Zina Ronca is a driver supervisor for Duvall Bus Services in West Grove, Pa.