Why some suburban school districts have a bus driver shortage and how they're adjusting
Suburban school districts are being hit by a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers, exacerbated by an unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic that has created a scarcity of workers in many areas of the economy.
The situation in the suburbs is not yet as dire as that in Chicago -- where last week 10% of Chicago Public Schools' bus drivers quit, prompting CPS to offer to pay parents to get their children to school by themselves -- but several districts are struggling to recruit and retain bus drivers, a recurring problem even before the pandemic.
Elgin Area School District U-46 officials, for instance, say they are looking to hire at least 30 more bus drivers -- on top of the 300 they employ already, including retirees who are filling in where needed.
"Our bus drivers play a vital role in keeping our schools open," Superintendent Tony Sanders wrote in a message to families in the state's second-largest school district.
Other suburban districts report similar problems finding bus drivers, with some districts offering incentives to new hires.
State health and education officials removed capacity limits on school buses with the switch to full in-person learning this year. Students and bus drivers still have to wear face masks, but there is no 3-foot social distancing requirement on buses.
Many suburban parents have taken to social media to complain about crowding on buses that they say aren't properly ventilated with barely any social distancing between students, creating the potential for the virus spreading.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Illinois Department of Public Health define an outbreak as two or more linked positive cases that are not from the same household and not listed as close contacts outside the outbreak setting.
IDPH on Tuesday listed 26 Illinois schools with COVID-19 outbreaks, including at U-46, Maine East High School, East Aurora District 131, Woodland Elementary School in Grayslake and Kaneland John Shields Elementary School in Elburn.
Most school districts have contact tracing procedures in place and monitor daily positive cases and exposures of students, teachers and employees.
U-46 officials said they haven't seen any positive COVID-19 cases related to busing, but one classroom at an elementary school in Streamwood has been closed through Sept. 7 per health department guidance. Officials said they are seeing a "high level of compliance" with COVID-19 mitigation strategies but expect to see more cases in a district educating more than 37,000 students.
Erin Holmes, spokeswoman for Palatine-Schaumburg Township High School District 211, said the district isn't seeing new COVID infections or exposures attributable to buses, though there's no way for certain to discern where an individual may have contracted the virus.
Palatine Township Elementary District 15 uses seating charts both in school and on buses to help expedite contact tracing and to identify students who need to quarantine or isolate. Parents also must self-certify that their children are free of COVID-19 symptoms and fever before getting on a bus.
Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 is tracking COVID-19 cases and contacts among its students based on parent notifications, students becoming ill during the school day and the ability to identify areas of contact with reported positive cases. While there are examples of such cases or contacts occurring on school buses, the individual data is not consolidated in a way to show the overall percentage occurring there, spokeswoman Terri McHugh said.
Like many districts, Northwest Suburban High School District 214's website includes a daily tracker of active COVID-19 cases and actively quarantined people at each of its six high schools and the Forest View Education Center. But the tracker doesn't include data on likely contact sites, whether on buses or anywhere else.
What's being done
Districts 54 and 214 contract with private bus firms. Officials there said they don't know the causes of the driver shortage.
"We've experienced delays and overcrowded buses as a result of this national bus driver shortage," District 214 spokeswoman Stephanie Kim said. "Between last week and this week, our solution has been to tier some bus routes at all six of our high schools. That means some students will be arriving earlier to school in the morning and some students will leave school later at the end of the day."
The bus firm District 54 contracts with, First Student, has responded to the driver shortage by consolidating its routes. The district is working with the company to recruit additional bus drivers, but it will take some time, McHugh said.
In Des Plaines Elementary District 62, which also contracts with First Student, officials are offering a variety of incentives to recruit drivers, including an increase in starting pay and a signing and retention bonus.
One reason for the shortage there is many drivers went to work doing deliveries during the pandemic when schools were closed and businesses were hiring all available drivers, Superintendent Paul Hertel wrote in a letter to families.
With buses running at capacity, the district has been forced to stop transporting some bus riders who pay for the service in order to serve the students the district is legally required to bus, Hertel said.
"We are working to find solutions to transport students to and from sporting events," he wrote. "A full refund will be issued, and should the district be able to accept new paid riders back later this school year, affected families will not pay a fee to ride the bus this year as a way of compensating them for this inconvenience."
St. Charles Unit District 303 is down 18 drivers. It's still a far cry better than another neighboring district that has reduced bus routes by 50% due to the driver shortage, Superintendent Jason Pearson told the school board Monday.
District 303's middle and high school students are arriving a few minutes late to class. Officials are working to adjust routes to ensure students get to class on time.
At District 15, officials are looking for ways to reduce ridership, in addition to hiring and training more drivers to transport more than 11,000 students using 122 district-owned buses. They're not offering paid busing this year and are asking other parents to opt out of transportation if they can.
"Both actions have allowed us to have fewer bus riders this year," spokeswoman Becca Latham said. "That said, however, our buses are fuller this year than they were last year when a capacity limit was in place and when we were able to offer two-instructional pathways for students."
Barely one week into the school year, Round Lake Area Unit District 116 is seeing three times the normal amount of car riders so far causing additional congestion at arrival/dismissal times.
"So far, we are in a good spot with bus drivers but anticipate that we may need to be flexible and ready to shift to cover routes in the event of any outbreaks within the team," district spokeswoman Heather Bennett said.
• Daily Herald staff writer Eric Peterson contributed to this report.