Jan 11, 2023 - News

School bus routes overhauled as driver shortages persist

Illustration of a school bus with a grimacing emoji instead of a stop sign.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A nationwide shortage of bus drivers continues to wreak havoc on local school schedules.

What's happening: Columbus and Reynoldsburg had to overhaul their bus routes this month to adjust — an unprecedented mid-year move.

Why it matters: Busing disruptions are the biggest factor preventing education from fully returning to normal amid the pandemic, as students face longer travel and wait times while continuing to miss in-person instruction.

Zoom in: In Reynoldsburg, students went remote for one or two days this fall as drivers staggered their route schedules.

  • The district recently adjusted class times, with some kids arriving home later in the day. It employs a razor-thin 44 drivers for 44 routes, business director Greg Pollock tells Axios.

Meanwhile, Columbus has 512 drivers for its 466 routes — reduced from over 600 last year — and 90% ran on time last week, a spokesperson says. An additional 65 routes are outsourced.

  • The district has been getting an earful from families whose students haven't been arriving at school on time, with its call center reaching capacity on the first day back from winter break.

The big picture: The pandemic exacerbated an existing problem, Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation president Todd Silverthorn tells Axios.

  • Some older drivers have retired due to the risk of COVID-19 infection.
  • But driving a big bus full of kids is also just a stressful job, with split hours and less pay and benefits than others requiring a commercial driver's license, surveys show.

What they're saying: This year, Silverthorn's district near Dayton has attracted half as many applicants as last year despite offering full benefits, covering training costs and paying over $22 an hour after six months of work.

  • "It's not like districts aren't trying," he says.

Yes, but: The scope of Ohio's issue also isn't clear. The state had 18,801 bus drivers in December, or similar to the number it had at the same time the year before, per the Ohio Department of Education.

  • A spokesperson couldn't provide figures prior to 2021 because bus drivers weren't tracked separately from other transportation employees.

Threat level: More is at stake for schools because a new 2021 state law penalizes districts for failing to consistently transport students on time.

  • Columbus and Groveport Madison were fined $11 million and $700,000 last year, respectively, and are challenging the fees in court.

Between the lines: Further stretching capacity, Ohio also requires that districts bus all children living within their boundaries, even if they attend private or charter schools. In Columbus, that's 12,000 students out of 38,000 current total riders.


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