The School Bus Driver Shortage is a Problem We Didn’t Have to Have

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School districts across the U.S. are struggling with a severe bus driver shortage this fall, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic but brought on by longer-standing issues. Without diminishing the complexity of this issue, it’s worth observing from a Strong Towns perspective that this is one of many examples of how the prevailing American pattern of development has made our basic institutions more fragile. 

A National School Transportation Association survey reports over 80% of school districts have altered service, and 51% describe their staffing issue as “severe” or “desperate.” This comes at a time when many low-wage industries are struggling to find and retain workers. The pandemic has disrupted lives and expectations and caused many to re-evaluate what trade-offs they are willing to accept for a job. Many service occupations have been among the highest-risk for COVID exposure: transportation workers are second only to those in the food and agriculture sector. Pandemic-related frustrations cut multiple ways: many drivers express fear for their own health, while in Chicago, 70 drivers, about 10% of the work force, quit when the district announced a vaccine mandate.

For school districts, all of these factors are compounded by budget constraints that depend on the political process: schools can’t readily raise wages to attract new hires the way, say, a restaurant might. According to the New York Times, the issue extends to substitute teachers and cafeteria employees as well.

The bus driver shortage is disrupting education in a myriad of ways. There are stories of schools sending students home 45 minutes early so that drivers can work multiple shifts. Massachusetts has called upon the National Guard to drive students to school. In Philadelphia, the school district is offering families $3,000 for the school year to eschew bus service and drive their own kids to school. In other places, administrators have gotten more creative: in perhaps the most humorous report, a Boston high school recently hired a party bus complete with stripper pole to transport students. 

The root causes of the problem are complex and many, including disputes over wages and working conditions that long predate the pandemic. Streetsblog‘s Kea Wilson has the best run-down I’ve seen this week of the broader issues.

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