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School bus driver shortage affecting WCCUSD special ed students

on December 27, 2022

Viva Millan-Alioto has six children, two of whom have special needs and qualify for transportation to and from school in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. But a bus driver shortage has stressed the system, making the service less reliable. 

Millan-Alioto has had to get on the phone with school officials to ensure pickups, or do the driving herself. 

“You have to be very active to get things done,” she said. 

As with the teacher shortage, the school bus driver shortage is nationwide. WCCUSD, which contracts with First Student to provide transportation, has responded to the shortage by consolidating bus routes. That has added students to routes and increased the amount of time they would have to spend on the bus to two hours in some cases. 

According to a recent national survey, the staffing shortage in the last school year was most acute for substitute teachers, followed by bus drivers. The data showed that 57% of school districts surveyed had a “considerable shortage” of bus drivers, a number that increased to 69% when looking only at urban districts.

The national bus driver shortage started before the pandemic, according to Enrique Lopezlira, director of the Low-Wage Work Program at UC Berkeley’s Labor Center. He said two trends — a drop in immigration during Donald Trump’s presidency and an aging workforce — have driven a labor shortage. And COVID-19 has exacerbated it. Lopezlira is researching why the public sector has not recovered from the jobs lost during the pandemic.

“The public sector is a bit of a puzzle, and certainly school districts fall into that. There’s been burnout on the teacher side. And on the bus driver side, there’s a lot of burnout of folks that could be contributing,” Lopezlira said. 

In WCCUSD, which does not provide transportation for most of its students, special education kids are most impacted by the shortage, since their individualized education plans can include transportation. 

School bus
School bus (Beki San Martin)

First Student said it is working to make routes more efficient and has raised bus drivers’ starting wage to $27.34 an hour. That is around $5 more than the state average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Elizabeth Sanders, WCCUSD spokesperson, said the driver shortage is affecting some, but not all, students who ride school buses, and that the district has responded by giving families more options. 

“Students and families who this is impacting are feeling a significant impact and we really don’t want to minimize that. And we have other families who are getting exactly the same services as they got before,” she said. “And ultimately we are still providing transportation services.” 

That service goes beyond school buses to a cab service, provided through a contract with Rids Brother Co. of El Cerrito, and mileage reimbursements that the district offers to parents who drive their special education children to school.

Falling through cracks

Even with the options, some parents are still experiencing challenges, said Millan-Alioto, who teaches special education at Dover Elementary School in San Pablo. 

This fall, it took three weeks for Millan-Alioto to get her daughter set up with bus transportation to and from Downer Elementary School in San Pablo. During that time, she had to drive her daughter to school, which meant she would arrive late for work.

“Spending three weeks getting her services is not very viable for a person who works,” Millan-Alioto said.

With the long list of people involved in the process — from the program specialist at Downer Elementary School to the bus driver at First Student — it’s easy for communication to break down, she added. And the driver shortage exacerbates the existent challenges. With the shortage, substitute drivers are being used more, and they may not be familiar with the routes or the children, Millan-Alioto said. This creates space for kids to fall through the cracks.

The cab service raised other concerns when Millan-Alioto used one last year to get her son to a county facility with better supports than his elementary school. She said the same person was supposed to pick him up and drop him off, but that wasn’t the case. 

“It’s unsettling because you wake up and are expecting, for example, that your kid is in a black Toyota Prius but it turns out it’s a gray Toyota van,” she said. 

The cab service has improved in some ways this year, Millan-Alioto said. “Now drivers share their work phone number with parents so they can communicate, which was happening last year but it’s a lot more common now.” 

Getting more drivers

Recruiting school bus drivers has always been challenging but has become harder with the pandemic, said Fernando Rivera, bus driver supervisor and trainer in the Napa Valley Unified School District, and former president of the California Association of School Transportation Officials Chapter 10, which includes Contra Costa County. 

Though he is a supervisor, he still drives a bus route because of the need. So does his director. 

“Me and him are still driving,” Rivera said. “That shouldn’t be the case because we have a lot already on our plate. Especially my director. He’s working a 9-to-5 desk job and also driving.” 

Getting certified to drive a bus requires significant time and flexibility, Rivera said. And working with kids can be hard. But the job’s biggest drawback is the strange, often part-time, schedule, he said. 

“You get up really early, do your route, and then you’re kind of free, but then you got to make sure that you don’t do anything too crazy or you can’t take up too much time because you got to be back by 1 p.m. Not a lot of districts give eight hours, which is what a lot of drivers and a lot of complaints are about — that you’re not guaranteed more hours,” Rivera said. 

Guaranteeing drivers a full eight hours would incentivize people to join the profession, Rivera said, suggesting that supplemental work be added to the job to make it full time.

“I think it’s just appealing. That eight hours, you know, working full time. That’s a representation of what they want,” he said.

Rivera also said higher wages would help. Lopezlira at UC Berkeley’s Labor Center, agrees.

“I think one of the things that the pandemic highlighted for a lot of people, is just how precarious their jobs were. And certainly bus drivers tend to be low-wage occupations, with uncertain work schedules and little to no benefits,” he said. “Plus, there’s a lack of respect for those workers from administration, parents and students. And because there’s not enough drivers, they’ve been asked to work longer hours and more shifts. All those things seem to be contributing to the barriers to hiring. So these occupations should pay more, should have better benefits, just the overall quality of those jobs can improve,” he said.

Rivera, who has been a bus driver for seven years, stays because he enjoys it. Recently, he was in his yard when a young woman called out to him. She used to ride his school bus to first grade and asked if he remembered her. Rivera did. 

“The fact that I still remember the face and she still remembers me, it is rewarding. It really is. And that’s why I think I still like what I do,” he said.

Teacher shortage threatens to crumble popular dual-language schools that WCCUSD built over years

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