As of this writing, more schools are bringing students back into the classroom. All-virtual school districts are moving to a hybrid model and areas with hybrid setups are switching back to in-person learning.
According to Burbio, a community events data service, students attending school virtually dropped to under 20% nationwide in mid-March, continuing a downward trend from February. This has particularly been the case with elementary school students.
School transportation departments have successfully shared drivers with other school districts and used data to adjust routing strategies to accommodate shortages as more schools reopen. Advance planning so districts had to share just a few drivers, using routing software, and combining stops by increasing walking distance were key steps.
School districts in Ohio and Georgia were able to reach out to neighboring districts for support while experiencing driver shortages during the return to in-person learning at the beginning of fall and winter semesters for their schools.
Cliff Hetzel, the business director for Hilliard (Ohio) City Schools, points out that the COVID-related driver shortage is a national challenge in part because of higher demand for professional drivers in the private market from companies such as Amazon. Additionally, fewer bus drivers over the age of 60 years old that would have typically been available to drive were willing to get behind the wheel due to health concerns.
Just before the pandemic hit in February 2020, the district needed five to seven drivers, but this past winter about one-third of its transportation staff had to quarantine due to COVID-19. As a result, the shortage increased to 10 to 15 drivers, Hetzel says.
“The district had not felt this severe of a shortage in recent history,” he notes.
Hetzel previously worked for nearby Reynoldsburg City Schools and had many solid relationships within that district’s administration, which made forging a driver sharing agreement a natural fit. Components of that agreement included a board resolution, roster acceptance, agreed-upon rates, adding Hilliard City Schools as a secondary school with the Ohio Department of Education, notifying the insurance carrier, and establishing vendor status with accounts payable, Hetzel says.
In the end, Hilliard was able to transport students successfully while in hybrid learning with limited help: it only needed to use one Reynoldsburg driver. Still, the legwork to bring extra drivers on board was beneficial.
“The district felt strategically positioned with additional reserves in place in the event a large group of drivers were quarantined, or if it returned all-in before other districts,” Hetzel says.
Hetzel advises other districts who would like to use this practice to start the conversation early with drivers and the transportation department to determine commitment levels and ensure they understand the process.
“If you have a great relationship with a nearby district, [sharing services] can be very helpful and appreciated by taxpayers,” Hetzel says.
Similarly, Cheryl Johnson, Harris County (Ga.) School District’s transportation director, says that four drivers from Muscogee County School District helped from its first day of the new school year (Aug. 6) through Labor Day (Sept. 7), when schools opened.
In August, with the impending start of school for HCSD, Johnson determined that due to various reasons the department had a shortage of drivers. The training staff had been preparing new drivers, but they would not be ready for the start of school, so she contacted MCSD’s transportation director to ask for assistance from a few of their drivers.
“We always have a good substitute driver pool, but with the shortage, we just got in a bind at the beginning of the year,” Johnson explained. “Fortunately for us, MCSD began virtually. That meant there were a few drivers available to help us out.”
The MCSD drivers had met the requirements set by HCSD and the Georgia Department of Education to qualify to drive a HCSD bus, Johnson added. The drivers also went through the same process as new employees with an interview, application, background check, drug test, physical exam, and driving observation. They also visited each school campus. Each driver was already a certified Georgia CDL-holding school bus driver.
There was no existing standard operating procedures agreement set but a general understanding that transportation departments would assist if drivers were available.
Johnson advises districts who want to implement a driver sharing practice to be sure to follow the federal, state, and district procedures for new hires to verify every school bus driver is certified and that they have passed all drug and physical exams.
Additionally, if other districts have not started school yet, reach out for assistance.
“I strongly encourage review of local policies and driving observation,” Johnson adds.
HCSD thanked the MCSD drivers for stepping up to help and awarded them with plaques at a September board meeting.
With a combination of data and geographical know-how, two school districts were able to adjust routes to get around their driver shortages.
The Albemarle (Va.) County Public Schools transportation department worked with a 17-driver shortage as students began returning to school in stages based on grade level for onsite learning from March 10 to 15.
In the present reopening phase, the district is transporting about 4,200 students, says Jim Foley, the district’s director of transportation. (Albemarle typically transports about 8,600 students each school day.)
In the 10 years that Foley has worked in Albemarle’s transportation department, he adds, it has been fully staffed very infrequently due to competition for drivers from neighboring school divisions, public transportation companies, and the University of Virginia. Normally, driver shortages have spurred the district to stop providing transportation for extracurricular events, prompting schools to contract out that service.
To contend with the current shortage, the transportation department used Tyler Technologies’ Versa Trans routing software and conducted a survey to determine which families were planning to use school transportation. The routing department designed routes by school to determine which ones could transport students most efficiently according to the school's schedule.
“Normally, there are about 670 separate bus routes. There are [currently] 561,” Foley says.
A key part of routing adjustments, Foley says, has been the transportation department's detailed knowledge of the county’s layout and its role as an important part of the school division's long-term planning.
The software allowed the route planners to incorporate that institutional knowledge on a digital whiteboard that was used to develop a viable routing system. It gave users both a high-level overview of what needs to happen while providing the detail necessary to create safe, efficient, and when needed, very personalized routes.
Using reporting features, the team could more accurately determine how many students could be transported within public health guidelines and it enabled them to think outside of the normal routing routines, Foley says.
For example, one of the district’s elementary schools had more students who needed transportation than it could accommodate given the CDC recommendations.
“We needed more buses to accomplish what the school was asking,” Foley says.
Because the school and parents were shying away from a tiered system of education and transportation for their own staffing and scheduling concerns, he adds, the solution in that case was to change the bell schedule and allow buses from two nearby elementary schools to assist by dropping off students at their base schools and proceed to run routes for the school in need. The software was integral to this process, Foley says.
“It allowed us to quickly simulate this idea to determine if it was viable both in the morning and the afternoon,” he explains.
From the onset of the pandemic, members of the team maintained different routing data sets that helped transition between COVID stages as health concerns changed the number of students invited into schools.
“The software helps forecast where there may be heavy student loads and to plan busing accordingly,” Foley says. “It makes it easy to adjust route timing to see if modifying bell schedules and bringing buses from two schools to assist at a third school would be viable.”
Meanwhile, New Hanover County (N.C.) Schools looked to data to inform its redistribution of stops and increased walking distance so fewer drivers would be needed. That also provided the safety benefit of reducing route times, in turn shortening the students’ and driver’s time on the bus and potential COVID exposure.
Mark Clawson, the district’s director of transportation, says his driver shortage solution started out as a way to deal with absenteeism when he was a driver.
“I was also responsible for the calls that went out to parents when the buses were going to be late,” he says. “The year-and-a-half I did that job, we averaged 20 late calls every day. We had drivers who would call out sick and the only way we could do their runs was to finish the route you were assigned and go back and pick up another set of kids who were waiting.”
In June 2020, when Clawson was promoted to the director of transportation position, he made it his top priority to get students to school on time. The district closed schools when the pandemic hit last year but reopened with a hybrid model on Oct. 12. In addition to the longstanding late call problem, several drivers said they were afraid to return to work during the pandemic. As a result, over the past year, Clawson has lost about 35 drivers.
In planning a solution, Clawson’s team started with the knowledge that they had fewer drivers and half the bus capacity available for about half of the student population.
“All the math worked out to be about the same,” he says. “We decided we were going to have to do multiple runs, but we would have to do them quicker.”
After looking at data using Edulog routing software, his team found that 36% of its stops last year were at the students’ homes.
“That’s not bus service,” he says. “That’s taxi service.”
State law says that schools must have one stop within a mile of students’ residences, Clawson says. Last year’s walking distance to stops was one-tenth of a mile for all the district’s 13,000 riders.
To work with its current number of drivers, the team combined existing stops into “community stops” — central locations in communities such as clubhouses and neighborhood pool parking lots within half a mile walking distance — for all middle school and high school students to be picked up together. (Elementary school students are assigned to stops within less than half a mile of walking distance.)
“The average walking distance [to a community stop] is 1,000 feet, which we don’t think is excessive,” Clawson says.
The community stops also keep the buses on main thoroughfares along the perimeters of neighborhoods, which saves driving time. One exception: where there is no safe walkway, buses will still pick up students at the end of neighborhood streets.
The result of consolidating stops: New Hanover’s buses have stopped half as often this year as last year. (The average bus route time is 16 minutes, Clawson says.) That allows that driver to go back to the same school and do a second run.
The community stops system has also reduced the department’s daily mileage by 32%.
“We used to do 11,700 miles a day,” Clawson says. “Now we’re at about 8,000 miles a day.”
That, in turn, cuts down on fuel use — by 40%, he adds.
As far as Clawson’s goal to get students to school on time, from late February through early March, New Hanover’s buses saw an average of 99.8% on-time performance. The average late time for a bus is under 3.5 minutes.
Another strategy Clawson and his team enacted to get students to school on time despite the shortage and absenteeism of about 11 drivers every day: they assigned routes with the new community stops to 90% of the drivers in the morning and the other 10% called “radio drivers,” held back to cover for absences with one set in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
“Nobody’s finishing their run and going back and doing somebody else’s,” Clawson explains, which has also contributed to the high on-time rate.
When New Hanover returns to full-time, in-person instruction in April, with more students needing a ride again, his team plans to keep using the same community stops.
“We’re just going to pick up twice the number of riders at each of them,” he says.