School bus driver shortage leaves families scrambling to find alternative ways to class

By: - October 18, 2021 7:00 am

Parents and buses line up to pick up students at Lakeview Elementary School in Robbinsdale in October 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Dominique Smith’s daughter was offered a school bus ride to Brooklyn Center’s Earle Brown Elementary throughout pre-K and kindergarten. 

This year, due to a dire shortage of qualified bus drivers, she didn’t have that option.

Smith said the school sent her a message before the year started stating that the 6-year-old would walk to school.

“I live eight blocks away, and that’s kind of far for her because she’s only 6,” Smith said. “So now I’m picking her up and dropping her off.”

Smith said she called Brooklyn Center transportation services about the change three times and left messages each time, but didn’t receive a response. 

Given a 7:30 a.m. school dropoff and 2 p.m. pickup, Smith’s job options were suddenly curtailed. 

“It’s kind of made me find a job that can work with those hours, and that was kind of rough to do,” Smith said.

The nationwide school bus driver shortage, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, has affected kids’ and parents’ routines across the Twin Cities metro this school year. 

The shortage is nothing new. Many potential drivers are turned off by the odd hours and unpaid summer and holiday hiatuses, to say nothing of the skill required steering a 35-foot machine filled with unruly kids. Additionally, state law prohibits drivers from collecting unemployment checks. 

The job became even harder with the onset of the pandemic because children are largely unvaccinated against COVID-19, especially those under 12 who are not yet eligible. 

Some school bus companies have increased wages and offered starting bonuses to attract more drivers, but the incentives have not been enough to fill hundreds of vacant positions in Minnesota. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, bus drivers make about $17 an hour. One Minnesotan school bus company CEO told Sahan Journal that he pays his drivers $23-25, depending on experience.

A lack of drivers means dropped routes, longer wait times and tighter-packed buses for students. 

Minnesota Department of Education spokesperson Ashleigh Norris said that the department is working with schools. 

“We’re aware of the equity implications that come along with bus driver shortages,” she said. “Many industries are seeing staffing shortages, and we are working with state partners to see how we can support schools in alleviating this issue.”

One way Earle Brown Elementary combats the bus driver shortage is by employing a fleet of minivans to take kids to and from school. Drivers don’t need commercial driver’s licenses to operate the vans, making it easier to fill the positions, but they undergo the same background checks as school bus drivers, according to the Brooklyn Center school district.

The vans line up at the back of the school so kids don’t confuse them for parents’ vehicles.

Another tool that Brooklyn Center students and families can use is an app called “Here Comes the Bus,” which allows users with school login information to track the school bus.

Mariela Romero drives her kids, ages 7 and 9, to Earle Brown Elementary. She said driving feels safer than sending them on the bus.

A neighbor mom told Romero her child sometimes waits more than an hour for the bus. 

“She’s thinking about in the winter time just dropping them off because of how long it’s going to be and it’s going to be cold,” Romero said.

Romero said her neighbor’s child gets home nearly an hour after school lets out, while she waits for her kids outside the school for about 10 minutes before they pile into the car. 

Mike Bonine, the interim superintendent of Brooklyn Center Community Schools, said COVID-19 heightened the bus driver shortage and its effects on the school.

“Anybody that’s in any type of transportation business will tell you that COVID is the bottom line,” Bonine said. 

Despite the shortage, Bonine said transportation issues have largely been solved since the beginning of the school year. 

Operations Director Mike Johnson agreed: “All schools do have bumpy beginnings,” Johnson said. “Our district is doing a pretty good job of getting everyone there.”

Neither Johnson or Bonine could give a range on how long students take to get to and from school on the bus, saying the times varied too much.

While Smith spoke about the changes she’s seen with the school’s transportation this year, her daughter, Malayah, tucked away in the backseat of the car, protested the idea of getting back on a bus.

“Well now she’s used to it, which I can’t blame her!” Smith said with a laugh. “I didn’t have the luxury of getting picked up and dropped off.” 

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Anna Koenning
Anna Koenning

Anna Koenning is a reporting intern for the Reformer. She covered international news for Madrid-based El Independiente and works as a barista when she isn't at the Reformer or in class at the University of Minnesota, where she studies journalism, Spanish and political science.

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