Rochester Community Schools struggles to find bus drivers

By: Mary Beth Almond, Tiffany Esshaki | Rochester Post | Published September 22, 2021

 The Rochester Community Schools district, like many schools across the nation and metro Detroit, is experiencing a shortage of bus drivers.

The Rochester Community Schools district, like many schools across the nation and metro Detroit, is experiencing a shortage of bus drivers.

Photo by Rochester Community Schools

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ROCHESTER/ROCHESTER HILLS/OAKLAND TOWNSHIP — It took some finagling, but public health experts and school administrators were able to figure out how to get kids back into classrooms this fall.

Then they had to figure out how to get them there — literally.

Like so many industries, transportation has seen a steep decline in workers and applicants, causing a nationwide shortage of bus drivers.

According to a survey by the National Association of Pupil Transportation, 51% of responding districts said they’re experiencing a “severe” or “desperate” shortage of bus drivers. Two-thirds of those respondents said the shortage is their No. 1 concern heading back to school, and in the Midwest, 77% of respondents said they’ve had to alter their transportation service as a result.

“As school districts across the country return to in-person learning, COVID continues to have an impact on education in general and school transportation, scheduling and logistics, in particular,” Mike Martin, the executive director of the NAPT, said in a press release. “But let’s be clear — this is not a new problem. Nor is it easy to solve.”

While it’s true that pandemic unemployment benefits, particularly the $300 weekly federal bonus, has deterred some potential drivers from applying for jobs, transportation in general has been hurting for a few years, with heightened requirements for training.

The process for obtaining a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, is another big hurdle, according to Durham School Services, which provides transportation to several school districts in southeast Michigan, including Rochester Community Schools.

“Visiting the Secretary of State has become appointment only, and that in itself can be a challenge for applicants getting their CDLs,” said Anna Lam with Durham School Services. “Being a bus driver is a critical position, and we suspect COVID has been a major contributing factor in the driver shortage.”

Some applicants, allegedly, could wait months for an appointment to get into the Secretary of State office to obtain the needed CDL. Once the paperwork gets started, it could be even longer before checks into criminal record and driving history are complete. To be clear, potential drivers can have zero demerits in either category.

After that comes the actual training, which is fairly rigorous and thorough, for obvious reasons.

Robert Shaner, the superintendent of Rochester Community Schools, said the national shortage of bus drivers has made it a “continued challenge to maintain consistent coverage.”

Limited bus drivers the week of Sept. 13 prompted RCS to “temporarily pause” bus service for middle-school athletics, although Shaner said student-athletes were able to continue after district families came to the rescue with carpools and ride-sharing.

In a Sept. 17 email to district parents, Shaner said the district was “sorry for the inconvenience” and “doing all we can” to meet the transportation needs of the school community.

“Many of our drivers have graciously taken on extra routes to help with the situation, and we are truly grateful for their efforts,” he said in the email.

Despite “some success” at recruiting events and job fairs, Shaner said, the driver shortage continues to be an issue for the district.

To help attract credentialed drivers, Durham School Services is offering sign-on bonuses — which are being matched by RCS through October.

Durham is offering a $1,000 sign-on bonus to fully credentialed drivers, which increases to $2,000 with the district match; a $750 sign-on bonus to drivers who have a CDL but lack the school bus endorsements, which jumps to $1,500 with the district match; and a $500 sign-on bonus to drivers with no current credentials, which bumps to $1,000 with the district match.

“We will keep our families informed as we continue to explore opportunities to work with other vendors and navigate through transportations challenges,” Shaner said in the district email.

Durham School Services, a company of National Express, has positions open for drivers in training and bus assistants in the RCS district. To learn more, visit ca reers.nellc.com/jobs.

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