By the time you read this column, North America’s children will have returned to school. Uniquely, the actual start of school depends upon the area in which you reside and that can vary from early August until after Labor Day. The reason I mention the staggered schedule is to shed some light on the invariable news stories about disruptions in various student transportation systems around the country.
Like clockwork, various media sources reach out to NSTA looking for comments, usually concerning an egregious set of circumstances that turns the Back-to-School season into havoc. It’s very hard to reroute and replan a first day once the first day is past, which is why student transportation professionals really buckle down weeks and months prior to the first day of school to minimize any difficulties.
Understanding that the human element can never be overlooked, the student transportation system understands that there will invariably be “hiccups.” Unfortunately, these hiccups usually become a news account, and in some cases rightfully so.
Famous House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” The reason the Speaker made this statement was very simple: elections are likely to be more affected by what occurs locally than by national circumstances, and I am going to borrow O’Neill’s thought process to relate it to student transportation.
This year, it seems that most of the media coverage of current student transportation difficulties centers on the narrative of a national “driver shortage.”
But is this true?
Anecdotally, the feedback we get at NSTA is that the driver pool appears to be in better shape and better paid than it was two years ago. That does not mean that there are not areas where the driver shortage still takes center stage but categorizing every student transportation disruption as “driver shortage” is not looking at all the factors.
And that brings me back to my earlier point that all student transportation is local.
Upon seeing a disturbance into the student transportation system, let’s not default that the likelihood is due to a driver shortage. Additionally, let’s not cast blame on inanimate objects – like routing software.
One of the true strengths of the student transportation systems comes from the plethora of committed and trained professionals – whose knowledge and experience we rely upon to move more than 25 million students per day in the United States. But for our system to remain effective, we cannot cede the human element in favor of an exclusively technological solution. True enough, we should embrace technology as part of our ever-changing landscape – enhanced with pupil transportation professionals with local knowledge and experience.
In terms of the driver shortage, there is work still to be done. That’s why, since 2020, NSTA has advocated for removal of the Under the Hood testing requirement as a precursor to receiving a CDL to drive a school bus locally. Our organization has garnered three separate temporary waivers, and one two-year exemption from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The exemption expires on Nov. 27, 2024, and NSTA continues to ponder next steps.
We simply need to market the “school bus driver” position better and get more new drivers into the driver pool, and the NSTA solution has already proven to do so in states that have adopted the exemption – based upon the feedback we have received from several Motor Vehicle Agencies. NSTA continues to forge ahead with this solution, and we embrace constructive discussions with other stakeholders in transportation and licensing sectors. If you have feedback for me to share, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.