One morning recently, I stepped outside of my front door and found that my seventh grade daughter was still standing across the street at the bus stop.
It had been at least 30 minutes since she'd left the house. School had already started.
Turns out, she experienced something that a lot of kids around the country are going through at the start of this new school year: There was no bus driver to pick her up.
“I currently have 73 bus drivers. I am looking to hire 37,” says Brandon George, the director of transportation at the Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, Arizona.
My daughter is one of up to 10,000 students he's in charge of bussing to school every day.
At Sky Crossing Elementary School in North Phoenix, students funnel into a bus driven by Junior Rodriguez, who has been driving for the school district for three years. He says this year has been more hectic than usual.
He now doubles up on his routes in the morning.
“It's real busy,” Rodriguez says. “I mean, you have to have the love for driving the kids home.”
The pandemic, which pushed some drivers away, shouldn’t keep people from applying to be a bus driver, he says. COVID-19 protections are in place, he says, including disinfecting the buses and making sure the kids wear their masks.
“I'm not scared,” Rodriguez says.
Driving school buses is typically a second job for many folks, says George, the transportation director. The district pays drivers like Rodriguez up to $18 an hour. It's not easy work: Drivers are doubling and even tripling their routes, which means once a driver drops off one load of children, they’ll circle back to the school to do it again.
Getting the schedules down pat becomes analytical, George explains.
“We're looking to move drivers on routes to make sure that they can hit the bell time,” he says. “So we have to get very creative to see who has a break, the time frame due to traffic, red lights [and] speed limits.”
Those factors are all taken into account when devising routes for safe and timely pick-ups and drop-offs.
George has heard his fair share of complaints about the current delays. When an upset parent calls, he walks them through the process of how routes are being covered. Typically, parents are sympathetic and understand the challenges, he says.
Some states are getting creative to solve the significant shortage of drivers. Massachusetts called in the National Guard to drive buses. New York is making it easier to get licensed. Sign up at one district in Montana and receive a $4,000 bonus.
In Phoenix, George slapped hiring advertisements on his fleet of buses, and his team passed out thousands of fliers around the city. He tries to highlight the benefits — like getting 21 holidays off from work — to get people interested in the job, he says.
As of right now, Paradise Valley Unified School District is not offering bonuses like some other school systems across the country.
When the situation gets desperate, George steps in. Fully suited in shirt, tie and slacks, he has driven a van that seats about six to seven kids on a route that doesn’t require a large passenger bus.
“We try to identify those routes so I can get in, drive them home and be back in the office to handle the director business,” he says.
Sometimes he has to tap his routers and dispatchers to drive as well. That’s the reality of the all-hands-on-deck situation that Phoenix and many other school districts find themselves in.
And George isn't the only school official facing a shortage: There's not enough substitute teachers, classroom aides or crossing guards either.
George hopes to cut the deficit and end the school year without a massive shortage. He continuously reminds his employees that if the district can even hire just one driver a month, that’s nine additional drivers by the time the school year wraps up.
This segment aired on September 22, 2021.