The Quad-Cities area needs school bus drivers.
And it is not alone. Several national associations concerned with school transportation conducted a survey that indicates shortages of drivers nationwide. The problem was rated severe or even desperate by about half of the roughly 1,500 participants.
Underlying causes include pay, benefits, hours and the length of time needed to be licensed, according to the release.
Locally, the shortage varies in scale, but bus drivers are needed in many of the Quad-Cities’ school districts.
Needs are more acute for Durham School Services, which serves the Davenport and Pleasant Valley community school districts, and for the Sherrard School District, which does its own busing, according to officials with both entities.
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Durham School Services has about 115 drivers covering those districts, Kathi Corbett, general manager of Durham, said.
“In order for me to be really happy and for us to have a very comfortable spread with enough to do trips and everything for both places, I would love to have about 20 more drivers,” Corbett said.
The districts have been helping where they can, but the lack of drivers has led to delays for routes and extracurricular transportation, Corbett said.
Counting regular and substitute drivers, Sherrard has about 20, Alan Boucher, the district superintendent, said. The district has always needed more drivers, but the issue is more severe now.
“If we could have five more drivers, we would breathe a great sigh of relief,” Boucher said. “If we could have 10 more drivers -- and of course, most of those would have to be substitutes -- then I think the problem would be solved.”
So far, Sherrard has not had to cancel any routes, but the district is using its bus mechanics, other staff who are certified bus drivers and its substitute drivers, to meet its need, Boucher said.
“We’ve been able to rearrange routes and rearrange drivers to get everything accommodated and, so far, we’ve been able to do it,” Boucher said.
Both Corbett and Boucher listed the impact of COVID-19 as the culprit or a possible culprit.
The shortage for Durham began when the pandemic began, Corbett said.
“I do believe that COVID has a great deal of effect on the amount of people that do or don’t want to be bus drivers because of the amount of time they spend with the kids or the amount of time that they spend with people that could be under the influence of COVID or exposed to COVID,” Corbett said.
To alleviate those concerns, Durham has established mitigation efforts for its buses, and about 78% of its drivers have been vaccinated, she said.
Boucher said the need for workers in other settings is also likely creating competition for people who could serve as bus drivers.
Each is attempting to recruit new drivers, Corbett and Boucher said.
Durham is offering recruitment bonuses for people who refer candidates-- $1,000 for a licensed candidate and $500 for untrained, Corbett said. The company is also trying other methods.
Durham has posted recruitment signs and ads, Corbett said. There is even a Durham driver who wanted to do community service who has been helping recruit. When that driver has time, she does “pick a book, leave a book” events.
“She lets kids pick out books from her little box that she’s got, and she puts bookmarks in them saying that we’re hiring,” Corbett said.
The extended screening process for potential bus drivers can also discourage candidates, Boucher said.
To ease the pressure of the waiting period on potential drivers who want to start work immediately, the Sherrard district has started allowing them to serve as bus monitors, letting them work while they wait for the screening process to finish, Boucher said.
Sherrard has also increased pay, and plans to further increase it in the next couple of years, he said. It is also advertising in various ways.
“We’re doing a TV ad -- we’ve never done that before -- so we’re trying to be as creative as possible,” Boucher said.
The Bettendorf Community School District needs one or two drivers, but that has been a long-standing issue, Curt Pratt, the Bettendorf district’s director of operations, said.
The Bettendorf district has substitute drivers in other departments it can use, Pratt said. Where it has been a challenge is having enough coverage when extracurricular activities require travel in addition to regular bus routes.
Recently, one team had to take two vans driven by the coaches rather than take a bus to an event, Pratt said. Though an option, using other vehicles than buses is also challenging because the district fleet is not large enough to serve everyone involved in extracurriculars.
MetroLINK, which provides public transport in the Illinois Quad-Cities metropolitan area, also provides busing for the Rock Island-Milan and Moline-Coal Valley school districts, Jennifer Hirsch, spokeswoman for MetroLINK, said.
MetroLINK typically has a handful of vacancies -- two or three, she said. Right now it has three or four vacancies.
“We are continually recruiting for drivers,” Hirsch said.
The vacancies have not impacted general service or busing, Hirsch said. Service also has not been affected by the pandemic.
Pratt also said underlying causes for the shortage include the financial. People who can qualify for the required license can find more lucrative ways to use it.
COVID-19, however, may not have played as much of a role in the shortage at Bettendorf, Pratt said.
Last fall, when everyone was more concerned with the unknowns of the coronavirus where full-time school was concerned, all of Bettendorf’s drivers came back and followed the pandemic precautions established by the district, Pratt said.
For MetroLINK, the issue is mainly turnover-- drivers tend to stay long-term and as the veteran drivers retire, it creates openings, Hirsch said.
Recently MetroLINK has changed recruiting tactics, Hirsch said. Rather than the traditional posting, it has started trying job fairs to draw more interest in the jobs it has available.
MetroLINK had 78 drivers as of Sept. 2, Hirsch said
“I would say 82 is probably where we would want to be in a perfect world,” she said.