ASHLAND — Steve Paramore, Ashland City Schools’ superintendent, starts most of his mornings behind the wheel of a van, helping to fill in part of a bus route.
“I want to be part of the solution,” Paramore told Ashland Source on Oct. 26. “I’m a busy individual, but not too busy to make sure kids get where they need to go safely.”
At Ashland City Schools’ August board meeting, Paramore told the board the district had enough bus drivers, and even one substitute.
But only two months into the year, the situation changed.
Responding to the shortage
According to Doug Shipper, the district’s transportation director, the shortage has existed since the COVID-19 pandemic. After the pandemic ended, the lack of bus drivers persisted.
That’s a story told around the country. Bus driver shortages existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but worsened during it. A survey from HopSkipDrive noted 92% of its respondents saw shortages in the last year that “constrained their operations.”
Shipper said Ashland City Schools didn’t let any of its bus drivers go this fall. Health issues came up, which caused a couple drivers to leave.
“It’s just life,” Shipper said. “Anything can happen to us at any given time.”
Shipper, like Paramore, has stepped up to drive children to school. He said the district’s director of professional development for tech, Ben Spieldenner, and other staff members have done the same thing.
Shipper added some bus routes have been broken up with multiple people chipping in. Others have been combined into double routes to account for the shortage.
Paramore said the district hasn’t had to cancel a route yet, but routes have run behind, and it’s taken longer for students to get home at the end of the day. He said he’s been grateful for patience from the community.
“It’s a team effort, and that’s value number one at Ashland City Schools,” Paramore said.
Still, Shipper said having district employees fill in shouldn’t be a permanent solution. He’s just not sure what the solution is.
Ashland City Schools, according to Shipper, has tried to think outside-the-box. The district has paid for bus drivers’ training, raised their hourly rate, paid for physicals and reimbursed them for background checks.
But none of it has attracted the number of drivers needed to fill the routes.
Ashland City Schools isn’t the only district in Ashland County struggling with the bus driver shortage, either.
Other districts struggle
At Mapleton Local Schools’ October board of education meeting, Supt. Scott Smith told the board the district lost two bus drivers.
Hillsdale Local Schools’ Supt. Cathy Trevathan also said in a phone interview with Ashland Source that her district has lost bus drivers since the beginning of the year. With the losses, she said it’s been hard to have enough drivers to take students on field trips and to sporting events.
“Just losing a driver is a big deal in a smaller district,” Trevathan said.
For Mapleton’s transportation director, Lisa Hodges, the district’s losses have been keenly felt.
At Mapleton, Hodges said one of the district’s routes is currently split between three buses and three vans. Hodges drives a route every day.
Like Ashland City Schools, Hodges said Mapleton has paid for training, background checks and the licenses to become a driver. The job comes with full benefits and insurance. None of it has worked.
She said the district’s existing drivers have been amazing about showing up. But it’s a struggle. There is no margin for error.
“You can’t even get sick because there’s nobody here to help,” Hodges said.
The transportation director at Hillsdale, Ora Flickinger, has stepped in to drive routes too, Trevathan said. Some coaches that have van licenses and small teams have added that onto their coaching workloads as well.
What’s causing it?
While local schools are struggling to attract drivers, the shortage is national. The HopSkipDrive survey stated some contributing factors to the shortage include:
- Issues recruiting new drivers
- Losing drivers to private industry
- Increases in driver retirement
- Insufficient wages
Trevathan said some of those struggles are also common at Hillsdale.
In a more rural area, she said there’s not as big a pool of people to pull from for the jobs. The ones that have done the job have been there for a long time, and finding replacements for them can be challenging.
Hodges added the COVID-19 pandemic, in her view, was the start of the issue. She worked as Mapleton’s head custodian for 22 years. During that time, she also worked as a substitute bus driver.
She said to her knowledge, there hadn’t been issues finding people to drive the routes before. The problem escalated over the last two years.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” Hodges said. “You have preschoolers to seniors on a bus at any given time with a capacity of 72 to 78 — and our buses are full.”
Shipper said another problem he’s heard is the job is not full-time. At Ashland City Schools, bus drivers work about 4 hours per day. Shipper said people have called in to inquire about the job and ended up not applying thanks to that.
What solutions are out there?
The common thread: Shipper, Trevathan, Paramore and Hodges aren’t sure what to do to fix the problem. The solutions they’ve tried haven’t worked, and the shortage continues to impact the districts.
For now, having district leaders and other personnel driving routes is a solution. Paramore said people in the Ashland district would continue to step up until the driver positions are filled.
Hodges added that districts help each other where they can.
She said money certainly talks, but no matter whether districts up their pay, the struggle has still been prevalent. Offering insurance helps, too, but hasn’t acted as enough incentive recently.
“I don’t know why,” Hodges said.
All the districts are currently hiring for bus drivers, and that information can be found on their respective websites.
“I’m fortunate and very thankful for the people we have,” Hodges said. “We couldn’t do it without them.”
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