Metro Atlanta schools face bus driver shortage

08/02/2021 —Marietta, Georgia — Pearson Middle School students exit their busses during the first day of school at Pearson Middle School in Marietta, Monday, August 2, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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08/02/2021 —Marietta, Georgia — Pearson Middle School students exit their busses during the first day of school at Pearson Middle School in Marietta, Monday, August 2, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Metro Atlanta schools have hundreds of open bus driver positions, and most school districts are willing to pay $1,000 signing bonuses or more to fill them.

So far, they’re still coming up short.

After months of job fairs and promoting wages of up to $25 an hour on employment websites, six of metro Atlanta’s seven largest school districts say they are assigning existing drivers double routes or adjusting pick up and drop off schedules to get children to class on time.

Some are also encouraging parents to drive their children to school, despite the traffic congestion it can cause.

“That is kind of a change of course from years past when we didn’t want them to do that,” Henry County Schools spokesman J.D. Hardin said of parents chauffeuring their kids to school.

The issue is not new.

School systems across the nation have been struggling with the bus driver shortage for years, but the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, experts said.

For instance, a school district in Montana is offering bus driving candidates $4,000 bonuses to take the job, and parents in a community in Delaware can get $700 to drive their children to school, according to an Associated Press report.

In metro Atlanta, several school systems said they have lost drivers because of concerns over students who won’t wear masks or because they fear exposure to unvaccinated children under 12, who have not been approved for inoculation.

“Since the first day of school we have had 17 resign,” Clayton County Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley said during a YouTube Live broadcast Wednesday.

In addition, the stronger job market has given bus drivers more employment options.

“What history has shown us is when the economy is not doing well and jobs are harder to come by, we have fewer vacancies,” Gwinnett Schools spokesman Bernard Watson said.

The Henry Board of Education was expected to vote on its own $1,000 incentive for drivers in a special called meeting Monday.

Gwinnett County Schools is one of the few districts with a full roster of drivers.

Walt Martin, chief operations officer, said the district recently filled the last of its vacancies with 125 new drivers who now must be trained. That means it will be a while before many of them start driving routes.

“They are not going to be driving a bus for several weeks,” even if they start Monday, he said.

Shon Walton, whose daughter rides a bus to high school in Henry County, said she is worried about how well buses are being cleaned for COVID-19 for each group of student riders. If drivers are doing double routes, when do they have time to spray the vehicles down as the county requires?

“If they are rushing to the next pick up, there’s no time,” she said.

Districts have tried to mitigate the impact of the driver shortage with apps meant to give real time information about bus locations, such as “Here Comes the Bus.” But many have complained online that the app doesn’t work or the information is incomplete.

District leaders acknowledge the difficulty. For instance, Clayton’s Beasley said the school system strives for buses to be on schedule 97% to 99% of the time for pick ups and drop offs. But because of the driver shortage, buses are on time in the morning only about 78% of the time and about 73% of the time for afternoon drop offs.

”The current bus driver shortage is causing last-minute substitutions, late bus arrivals, and the need for one bus to perform two or more runs at your student’s school,” an Atlanta Public Schools email to parents said on Aug. 19.

To compete for drivers, metro school systems are reaching deep in their pockets. Hourly wages range from $17 for beginners up to $25 for more seasoned drivers.

DeKalb Schools leaders said the district, which has about 112 bus driver vacancies, is offering a $600 stipend for new drivers who complete training and an additional $600 after they have transported students for 30 days.

Fulton Schools, which has between 35 and 40 vacant driver positions, starts pay at $20.40 an hour and is offering a $1,000 signing bonus through Aug. 31, the district said.

Cobb Schools said the district will offer bus drivers and monitors a $1,200 retention bonus in their December payroll. To be eligible, each driver and monitor must be employed by Sept. 24, the school system said.

“Our bus drivers and monitors are the first team member many of our students and parents see every day,” Chief Operations Officer Marc Smith in a memo to staff last week. “We want to do everything we can to hire the best and keep the best.”

Staff writers Kristal Dixon, Alia Malik and Vanessa McCray contributed to this report