Off Campus

The causes and fallouts of the national school bus driver shortage

Fallout of the school bus driver shortage

As districts across the country navigate the national school bus driver shortage, a resolution may not be far off.

School bus stop sign

The national shortage of school bus drivers has only become more acute for Syracuse City Schools. A fleet of only 160 buses are responsible for the transportation of over 11,000 students, and the district is not alone — schools across the country are facing driver scarcities every day. 

The shortage became more prevalent after COVID-19, causing headaches for administrative bodies, parents and students. School start times have been adjusted and budgets have been reworked to account for the lack of transportation, but some districts have been forced to close their doors.

Jeremy Smith, director of transportation for Syracuse City School District, has been tasked with navigating the tumultuous environment for both drivers and students.  

As of Feb. 7, 2022, drivers must complete both behind-the-wheel training as well as classroom instruction to receive their license. Smith said a significant proponent of the shortage resulted from the addition of the new training, adding the 15% statewide shortage of bus drivers has worsened in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Called Entry Level Driver Training (ELDT), the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration established new regulations for all new drivers seeking a Class A or B Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).

“We had to adjust with the change in start time because there are so many other places around us that need CDL drivers,” Jeremy said. “With there being such a high demand for CDL drivers, it hasn’t really improved.” 

The goal of ELDT is to standardize safety requirements nationwide to ensure drivers meet the same expectations for operating vehicles. For school bus drivers, they must pass the baseline training and then receive a further endorsement for operating a school bus. 

Another unexpected issue for the industry has to do with the health of the drivers, more specifically, sleep apnea.

All drivers are required to pass a physical through the Department of Transportation, yet drivers with sleep apnea have trouble getting the appropriate medical clearance. Smith said a reluctance to undergo the proper treatment further inhibited bringing more drivers to the industry.  

Henninger High School in Syracuse, NY,
Annika Holmberg
Henninger High School in Syracuse, home to over 1,500 students.

For the private industry, organizations work to protect both drivers and students while keeping an eye on ongoing legislation.

Thomas Smith is the President of New York School Bus Contractors Association (NYSBCA), primarily focused on providing safe and cost-effective transportation and working with local and state governments. 

New York State owns more than 10% of the entire country’s yellow school bus fleet, with NYSBCA representing over 300 school districts alone

In light of the new regulations for incoming drivers, NYSBCA has worked hard to accommodate testing requirements and more flexibility. Throughout the four-to-six-week process, NYSBCA has made arrangements for on-site testing with oversight from the DMV rather than off-site locations. 

“It keeps the employee in a comfortable spot where they can complete training,” Thomas said. “Also, if they do fail, we’re able to schedule a retest more promptly than going through the normal system through the DMV.” 

Something that school bus drivers look for is flexibility. Smith says many take on the career as a part-time job that still allows for free time.

As districts and contractors may have to make concessions as the shortage persists, finding incentives to attract drivers is of high importance. Whether it be in the form of benefits packages or adjusting hours, wages have also had to remain competitive.  

While the shortage has certainly posed issues for administrators in the industry, students face the most complications. Andrew Reidel is the location manager of First Student, Inc. in Buffalo, which oversees operations of 120 routes that service over 10,000 students. Like Syracuse City Schools, districts in Buffalo have also had to rework their school scheduling to accommodate the lack of drivers. 

“In Buffalo, they used to have a two-tier bell system,” Reidel said. “Everyone used to start at 7:15 or 8:15. Now they start at 7:15, 8:15 or 9:15 and get out at 2:15, 3:15 and 4:15.”

The shift in schedules results in longer commutes for students. Parents end up waiting longer for their children’s arrival home, creating a ripple effect of delays and scheduling issues. However, with an improvement in the shortage, Reidel doesn’t anticipate a change to the new three-tier system. 

When it comes to the forward outlook, those at the forefront are working to identify challenges that may come in the future. Reidel believes the resolution is around the corner with help from state and federal governments, while others remain conscious of potential roadblocks.  

Robert DiFlorio, Chief of Operations for Syracuse City School District (SCSD), oversees everything from transportation, to school safety and security and all SCSD facilities. Despite some improvement, local competition for drivers continue to present some issues. 

“Retail has taken on CDL drivers,” DiFlorio said. “Think how quickly your Amazon orders come. That industry is being eaten up by some of the other industries.”

The overall trend of online retail has clashed with school transportation, and part of that can be attributed to lower annual salaries. “Once you have a class A license, you can drive tractor trailers,” DiFlorio said. “Some of those drivers make over $100,000 a year, whereas bus drivers are making only around $30,000.” 

Taking a closer look at the Syracuse City School District budget, both state aid and expenses for transportation have increased. According to the 2023-2024 budget, $20.7M of state aid has been adopted by the district, a 16% increase, while transportation expenses are expected to increase by 6%. As the situation continues to evolve, dedicating more money toward finding and retaining drivers remains at the front line, according to DiFlorio.

The national school bus driver shortage has reverberated throughout the country, altering schedules for both students and teachers, as well as incurring additional costs to try and accommodate. Those tasked with navigating the shortage, like districts and contractors, keep flexibility and other incentives at the forefront in an attempt to attract more drivers.  

A vital facet of the shortage is not only the organizational changes that need to be made, but recognizing the role that drivers play in students’ lives. “Sometimes these students’ bus drivers are the first person they see for the day,” Jeremy Smith explained. 

With a hopeful resolution around the corner, there’s an opportunity for new drivers to make an impact on the students they transport every day.