-  Photo courtesy Hanover County (Va.) Public Schools

Photo courtesy Hanover County (Va.) Public Schools

Spring is in the air, and signs around the country have been pointing in a more positive economic direction since the beginning of the year. Overall, though, recovery continues at a slow creep.

Some positive indicators we have seen include more COVID-19 vaccines being distributed, businesses beginning to open their doors more freely, and of course, many more children returning to the classroom

Everyone welcomes this news, but there are also serious issues that student transportation will have to address as we return to full service after the pandemic. Mainly, I am talking about a potential shortage of school bus drivers to take our children to and from school each day.

For those not involved in the day-to-day challenges of student transportation, common questions include: How did this happen? Where did the drivers go? How are you going to get students back to school if you are short on staff? How can we get drivers back?

As we assess the fallout from the COVID-19 health crisis, understand that much of our workforce has been sidelined for 10 consecutive months, and in some cases a full year. When we peel back all the layers that consumed the U.S. during this period, many of the reasons causing reluctance to “return to work” make sense. After all, pupil transportation does not operate in a vacuum, and dynamics that affect us as a country certainly find their way into what we do.

Specifically, driver shortage is a concern that continues to be the central message our industry has been trying to convey to policymakers and the media for the past several years, but it has also been exacerbated during the pandemic.

We need to accurately identify problems to formulate solutions, so let’s look into a few reasons drivers remain on the sidelines:

•             Want to receive COVID-19 vaccine first.

•             Pandemic caused retirement, in some cases, early retirement.

•             Caught COVID-19 and it may have worsened existing conditions.

•             Permits, certifications, or licenses expired during the pandemic.

•             Increased unemployment insurance (through the CARES Act or American Rescue Plan Act) means employees receive more money by not working.

•             Scared about coming back to work based on experiences.

•             Pandemic spurred a change in life priorities.

•             Inability to attract new drivers.

Like most reasonable managers/operators, I understand the sentiments behind these reasons, and they seem to make perfect sense. For those drivers who have returned to work, the industry and entire educational community are extremely thankful for your dedication. The parents I have spoken to are also grateful for a return to in-class learning for their children, which would not be possible without school bus drivers.

John Benish Jr. is the president of the National School Transportation Association.  -  Photo courtesy NSTA

John Benish Jr. is the president of the National School Transportation Association.

Photo courtesy NSTA

One area that perhaps does not get enough attention is the ability of pupil transporters to attract new employees into our workforce. This challenge is not just one driven by marketplace dynamics. In other words, the common refrain of “just pay them more” sounds great but does not adequately represent the challenge that the industry faces.

Most, if not all, state driver’s license agencies (SDLAs) were closed at some point during the pandemic. And now that these agencies are operating again, priority one has been to alleviate the backlog caused by the closures. Getting new blood into the industry requires training, certification, and testing, and all of these were in short supply throughout most of 2020.

The National School Transportation Association (NSTA) has raised this issue with policymakers at the state and federal levels. In fact, last August we proposed a School Bus-Only commercial driver’s license (CDL) to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration as a potential solution to the impending bus driver shortage. In a nutshell, the School Bus-Only CDL creates a special classification of license by removing the “under the hood” testing requirement outlined by 49 CFR sec. 383.113(a)(1), as well as restricting these license holders to only intrastate operation of a school bus. Simply put: it focuses on the unique characteristics of driving the yellow bus while removing unnecessary features more applicable to long haul trucking.

Find out more about the School Bus-Only CDL through NSTA at info@yellowbuses.org.

Remember: with NSTA, you never travel alone.