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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Alachua County suffers school bus driver shortage

On an average day, about 20 drivers are absent

Gainesville High School students waited 90 minutes for their bus ride home on Sept. 7. The reason? There was no driver. 

Unfortunately, as of the start of the school year, delayed buses are not uncommon in Alachua County, ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson said. The ACPS website now includes a late bus tracker that lists which routes are late each day and states whether there was a driver in extreme delays. 

On an average day, about 20 bus drivers are absent, Johnson said. 

Sometimes driver absences are COVID-19 related and other times drivers simply call out or don’t show up to work with no explanation, Johnson said. But substitute bus drivers are always on staff and route coordinators are also certified to drive the buses. 

However, drivers are still a necessity. 

Roughly 11,000 to 12,000 students rely on the bus as their transportation to and from school in any given school year, Johnson said. For education to occur, students need to arrive at school each day, and that requires drivers.

But drivers must complete proper training prior to transporting students. 

Each driver must attain their commercial driver’s license and undergo a 40-hour class, Crystal Tessmann, the service unit director for the Alachua County Education Association said.

Low wages also contribute to the shortage. Beginning pay is roughly $13 an hour, Tessmann said. Some retail and restaurant chains, which don’t require such training, pay more than that. 

As schools reopened, a school bus driver shortage ensued nationwide — from school districts in Montana to Delaware to Florida. 

In a joint survey of America’s shortage of school bus drivers, the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the National School Transportation Association found that 51% of survey respondents viewed their current driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate.”  

Alachua County students and parents share these feelings.

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Elaine Almond, a Buchholz High School parent, said her 15-year-old son, Carter, has experienced the staff shortage first-hand. Since school started, his afternoon bus transported students who were typically on another route. 

On days with more driver absences, buses must double up on routes, Johnson said, which causes a domino effect of delays.

“When he does have to ride it [the bus] home he would be about an hour later than usual because it was taking kids … all the way down to Newberry before it would come back into Gainesville,” Almond said.

ACPS is experiencing a shortage of teachers, custodians and food service workers in addition to bus drivers, which exacerbates the problem, Tessmann said. 

“They’re incredibly hardworking — our bus drivers and our aides,” Tessmann said. “They are super underpaid.” 

ACEA believes these drivers should earn more money for their work as they juggle behavior management and compliance with health mandates while driving. 

“The bus drivers made a push at one of the more recent school board meetings,” Tessmann said. “The association spoke at the school board meeting on behalf of them, saying that they needed to be making more money and that it is a skilled position.” 

In contrast to other districts, ACPS provides pay to individuals undergoing their CDL training. The county also offers additional hours, so it can guarantee the drivers seven hours of pay each day, Johnson said. 

“Our bus drivers over the past few years have actually had a higher percentage pay increase than other employees,” Johnson said. “We also offer full free health insurance, which isn’t true in a lot of other districts.”

Despite county incentives, the shortage persists. The lack of employees has caused children to be late to class and drivers to manage more routes. 

Emma Behrmann is a contributing writer for The Alligator. Follow her on Twitter @emmabehrmann

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