WATSONVILLE—Every day in Pajaro Valley Unified School District, thousands of kids take the bus to school—about 25% of the district’s student population—along 59 routes. It is a ritual that plays out in communities around the globe for students who live too far from their school to walk.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has made that daily routine more difficult, and school districts nationwide are facing a bus driver shortage that has PVUSD drivers doubling up on bus routes, and others doubling back to pick up additional students. That has meant that kids are facing longer wait times for their ride to school, and that sometimes busses run late, says PVUSD’s transportation department director Katie Powell.
Just 52 of 68 positions in Santa Cruz County’s largest and most rural school district are filled, Powell says, and the district is actively recruiting new drivers.
That can be a difficult process, with several onerous requirements to get through to become a school bus driver.
This includes at least 20 hours of classroom instruction and 20 hours of behind-the-wheel training, as well as tests by the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Highway Patrol, and a physical examination mandated by the Department of Transportation. Also included are random drug tests and background checks.
“There’s a lot of requirements for a school bus driver to maintain their license, and it’s hard to keep up with the other requirements,” she says.
According to a nationwide survey taken this year, school districts were already fretting about bus driver shortages—and a lack of other school employees—even before the pandemic hit, with workers turning away from low pay, unpredictable hours and other issues, and drivers turning to more lucrative driving jobs.
In PVUSD, many drivers decided to retire once the pandemic hit, Powell says.
The survey shows that 37% of respondents said that they are stymied by a bus driver shortage, and 81% said that Covid-19 exacerbated the problem. Others said they put off purchasing new busses for their fleets because of the problem.
Worse, layoffs and furloughs caused by the pandemic—a time when students did not need a ride to school—left many drivers seeking new jobs, never to return, according to the National School Transportation Association.
Powell says that the district tries to act as a mentor to potential drivers, with a program for those who have passed the classroom portion. These school bus trainees are coached through the driving portion and the ensuing tests.
Still, hiring can be a challenge. Out of 20 who started training in September, just eight finished, Powell says.
“We offer them an environment where they can come into PVUSD, and we foster them through that process,” she says.
For information on becoming a bus driver, call 728-6324.