A lack of transportation personnel is forcing many Kentucky school districts to make some tough decisions, from going without bus monitors, to combining routes, to cutting routes altogether.
Louisville mom Lashara Armstrong’s son’s K-12 career is off to a rocky start. Her 6-year-old Larry started kindergarten remotely in 2020 because of the pandemic. Now he’s a first-grader at Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School, where he attends classes in-person. But first, he has to get there, and the bus ride is difficult.
“It hasn’t even been two months, and he’s already been hit and abused three times,” Armstrong told WFPL News
The first time, a student whipped him with a belt, leaving marks across his legs. The second time, two older students jumped him when he tried to sit next to them and gave him a black eye. The third time, a student slapped him across the face during an argument over superheroes.
Armstrong said she’s asked the school for a bus monitor — an adult to supervise the students during the ride. But she said, when the assistant principal asked for one, Jefferson County Public Schools told the administrator they didn’t have enough bus monitors to make it happen.
“My son, he’s in danger, and I do not want my son to be a child who may want to harm hisself because he’s being bullied at school or on the school bus,” Armstrong said, noting her son has become depressed and withdrawn since the incidents. She said she drove him herself for two weeks, but the commute was making her late for hair school.
“It was bringing my hours down at school,” she said. “When it comes to hair school, it’s all about the hours: the more hours you get, the faster you graduate.”
JCPS spokesperson Renee Murphy said the district can’t comment on specific cases, but that “in general, when a transportation concern is brought to our attention, we work quickly to address the matter.”
She also said the district is hiring bus monitors. Kentucky school districts are short hundreds of monitors statewide: 373 according to a September survey from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). The number is likely even greater, since only about 120 of 171 school districts responded to the survey.
COVID, pay, and logistical hold-ups
When it comes to bus drivers, the situation is even more dire—districts are short more than 1,500 drivers. And again, the need is likely even larger than that number, since not all districts responded to the survey.
“A large portion of our school districts do not have enough drivers to run their day to day routes,” KDE pupil transportation manager Elisa Hanley told WFPL. “They are at full capacity, using their substitute drivers, teachers, principals, superintendents — anyone that is able to get a [commercial driver’s license], or that has a CDL.”
School districts across the country were already facing driver shortages before the pandemic, but pandemic pressures compounded the issue. Many drivers are older people, who are more at risk of complications from COVID-19, and Hanley said many have retired rather than risk contracting the virus at work.
Some have died, Hanley said. In Warren County Public Schools, 73-year-old bus driver James Monroe Austin died of COVID-19 in September. WCPS transportation director Chip Jenkins said news of Austin’s death may have made people less willing to drive.
“People were extremely afraid of COVID,” he said. “We lost several people in the beginning of the school year, older drivers, who just were so cautious — they didn’t want to risk it any more.”
Jenkins said he thinks the fear is starting to subside, as the delta variant of COVID-19 appears to have peaked in Kentucky for now and daily case numbers have started to decline.
In some districts, pay is an issue. Bullitt County Public Schools bus drivers and monitors organized a sick-out last week over what they say are unfair wages. The starting salary of a Bullitt County bus driver is around $16 an hour. Meanwhile, school districts are competing for drivers with private companies and delivery services that offer higher pay. Amazon starts drivers at $20 an hour, plus thousands of dollars in signing bonuses in some cities.
Hanley said for some people, the hours can be a deterrent. Many drivers and monitors work fewer than 8 hours a day, and only during the school year.
“People aren’t bringing home a full paycheck,” Hanley said. On the plus side, Hanley noted even part-time drivers are eligible for full-time state benefits and pension.
Even when districts find people to apply for their CDL, license applications are often caught up in a backlog at the state’s new consolidated regional driver’s license offices.
Hanley said many would-be drivers can’t get appointments at those offices because the Kentucky State Police, which run the regional centers, don’t have enough staff.
“The Kentucky State Police need people just as bad as we need people,” Hanley said.
Longer, more crowded rides…or no rides at all
To keep busses running without enough drivers, many school systems are combining routes. In Warren County drivers are making double runs: driving one route and returning to the school to pick up more kids.
“It doesn’t always look pretty, but we’re able to just kind of proceed on and do what we need to do,” Jenkins said. “All students will get picked up. All students will get taken home. It may be 30-minutes to an hour later on a.m. and p.m., but we’re getting it done.”
In JCPS, the district reduced its routes from around 900 to around 800. But it means rides are longer, and more crowded. Buses are allowed to put more than 60 elementary school students on one bus — that’s three students to a seat.
So far, JCPS has avoided canceling routes — the worst-case scenario that keeps Hanley up at night.
“When you don’t have drivers to pick up those kids, some of those students don’t have anywhere else to go,” Hanley said. “School is their safe place.”
But Fayette County Public Schools and Bullitt County Public Schools haven’t been as lucky as JCPS. Both school systems canceled some bus routes this year, leaving some families to drive themselves. State and federal laws don’t require schools to provide transportation, except to students with disabilities. But many families rely on it all the same.
Bullitt County mom Jenny Warren told WFPL parents don’t know until each morning whether they’ll have a school bus. Families get an automated message around 6:30 a.m. listing the bus routes that are canceled or combined.
“You kind of hope that your bus is not on that route because — 6:30 in the morning — you’re changing pick up, drop off, anything like that,” Warren told WFPL.
The shortage got worse last week, during the sickout. In addition to higher wages, Bullitt County bus drivers also want more sick leave and a guarantee that the COVID-19 vaccine won’t be mandated.
In a statement, Bullitt County Schools district spokesperson Kali Ervin said district leaders are in talks with a group of drivers about compensation.
Federal funds help attract drivers
Many districts have used the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief to raise pay and even add signing bonuses. That’s helped somewhat, Jenkins said, in Warren County.
JCPS increased all drivers’ pay temporarily by $6 an hour, bringing the starting salary to $26 an hour.
Many districts are encouraging employees to take on dual roles and apply for their CDL. A middle school teacher with earlier dismissal, for example, could drive an elementary school route with a later dismissal. JCPS is offering teachers and other employees who take on bus routes an additional $6 an hour to their salaries as well.
Jenkins is trying to spread the word that being a bus driver is rewarding. He drives a route everyday himself.
“I had a little second grader just come up and hug me out of nowhere and said thank you for driving,” Jenkins recounted. “That just melted my heart. … We have an intrinsic value, and that is providing transportation for our little ones and our older ones too.”
If that’s not enough to attract more drivers, Jenkins hopes a new $500 signing bonus will be.