It’s no secret by now that the pandemic exacerbated the already growing school bus driver shortage. Driver shortages have forced school districts across the country to upend their bell time schedules and opt for changes to ensure students get to and from school in a timely manner.
But, as it turns out, the driver shortage isn’t the only reason many schools have opted for bell time changes.
Double the Reward
When Mathew Palmer, Durham (North Carolina) Public Schools’ executive director of transportation, school planning, and nutrition was preparing his presentation to the board of education earlier this year, he knew there were more benefits to time changes than just having the drivers needed to get students to the classroom. He also included data from several studies on the benefits of later start times on students’ learning.
A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2014 urged middle and high schools to modify start times to allow students to get adequate sleep and to improve their academic performance, among other areas of their lives. The AAP recommended middle and high schools should aim for a starting time of no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
DPS currently has 160 drivers on staff; it is short 140 drivers. Every day, the drivers are responsible for transporting students on 430 routes to and from school. The school district began a three-tiered schedule: 7:45 a.m. for elementary schools, 8:30 a.m. for middle schools, and 9:15 a.m. for high schools. The high schools were already starting at that time, but the elementary and middle schools had staggered start times. Implementing the three-tiered schedule brought consistency, ensuring that students of the same age were starting at the same time across the district. It also helped back up the suggestion from the AAP regarding the later start time for middle school students.
The school district actually attempted to change bell times five years ago because of this research and was able to get some start times pushed back, but was unsuccessful in changing start times for all students due to the politics involved, Palmer explained. The driver shortage allowed the change to be put in place across the board.
Palmer says the change is widely supported by parents, but it also highlighted another area where there are staffing issues: the after-school program. The district is working to bolster the after-school care program and adequately staff it amid the scheduling changes.
The bell time changes are beneficial in four ways, Palmer explained: it offers better service for students; it creates consistency by making bus pickup and drop-off times more reliable for families; it reduces ride times for students; and it improves service for special-needs students by providing better service not only for all students, but especially for students with special needs.
Even when the district fills its driver openings, it intends to keep the changes in place.
“What we’ve seen is that once you put something in motion, families kind of grow to expect that you’re going to keep to that,” Palmer said. He says the changes are not just a temporary fix; they will set the district on a sustainable path toward consistency for both drivers and students.
The Tippecanoe School Corporation (TSC) in Lafayette, Ind., also intends to keep its bell time changes in place. That district is short 15 drivers. To keep bus routes moving for students, the district opted for a four-tier system. It previously operated on a two-tier system, but that was no longer working because drivers were forced to run multiple double routes at several schools, and late buses were a consistent source of frustration for parents and schools. A transportation consulting firm came up with the four-tier plan, which is being put in place for this school year.
The bell time changes were not the district’s first choice. TSC tried aggressively recruiting drivers by increasing pay, offering benefits, and paid time off. Transportation Director Kirk Brooks explained that the district was unable to attract and retain enough qualified drivers to operate effectively on its previous schedule.
Where Are All the Drivers?
The pandemic led many older drivers into early retirement. But it isn’t the only reason the industry is suffering.
Palmer said it all drills down to the wide array of options available for drivers with specialty licenses like CDLs, including freight and increasingly lucrative alternatives like Amazon, Uber, and other companies. In Durham specifically, the area is home to several major universities that can act as competition in the job market – like Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Often, these options pay higher wages than school districts or bus contractors can.
But what they don’t have, Palmer explained, is the same sense of purpose.
“When you do this work, you’re the first person that child sees in a day. You are the front door to the school system. And we’re hearing from our drivers that that really matters to them,” Palmer said.
Brooks echoed this sentiment. He said he hopes drivers will see the value in working for TSC, leading them to continue their employment with the district.
Attracting the Right Drivers
In the increasingly competitive job market for CDL drivers, districts and contractors are not only using that sense of purpose the drivers feel as a way to attract new employees; they are also offering incentives they hope will make them stand out.
TSC made several changes, including increasing its starting pay by over a dollar per hour. The district also restructured its driver pay scale to offer a pay increase for every year of service up to 10 years. TSC also offers a matching 403B contribution up to 3% for employees who drive 35 hours or more per week.
Palmer says DPS offers the highest pay for school bus drivers in North Carolina. The district is also working to make changes to ease drivers’ shifts. The transportation department is in the process of onboarding a school bus technology platform that could reduce some of the stress drivers experience and improve the safety of driving school buses.
The district also has a recruitment and retention program and works alongside drivers who are interested in receiving additional professional development training, as well as drivers who want to move up to management positions.
Advice for Other Districts
Palmer says it’s crucial to build consensus around the need for solving the problems your district is facing. A good way to do that, he explains, is to lead with data. When his department was proposing bell changes to the board of education, they prepared a presentation providing data that backed up their claims about the positive impacts of the bell time changes.
“We were able to work with our academic services department to say, ‘there’s all these surface level benefits, and we’re dealing with a bus driver shortage. But it’s best for the kids.’ When you do that, there’s really not any rock you can hide behind when you say no [to that],” Palmer said.