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Bus driver shortages still scramble student commutes a month into St. Louis’ school year

The sun casts on a drone image of school busses
Brent Jones
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Buses are parked at the Rockwood School District's transportation headquarters in Wildwood the week before school started in August. Like many districts in the region, Rockwood is experiencing a bus driver shortage this school year.

In August, just a few days before the new school year was to begin, St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams stood in front of a row of yellow school buses to make an announcement.

“I’m left to take the temporary action of suspending all bus services for eight schools,” Adams said.

The bus driver shortage was behind this unprecedented step, and it has been affecting districts across the St. Louis region.

Adams said he hoped the schools would only have to wait two weeks for bus service to return. But a full month later, the majority of those routes still aren’t up and running.

St. Louis Public Schools offered families weekly gas or metro cards to get through the temporary transportation disruption, but many parents are still scrambling to figure out how to get their kids to school. And in districts outside the city, kids are also dealing with changes during the shortage.

08172022_KG_BUS-SHORTAGE-8.JPG
Kate Grumke
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Kelvin Adams, St. Louis Public Schools superintendent, makes remarks to the media regarding the district’s school bus driver shortage while standing alongside Scott Allen, regional operations manager for North America Central School Bus, the company that contracts with SLPS for its bus services, last month at the Missouri Central Bus Company in north St. Louis.

New schedules

One morning last week in a quiet south city neighborhood, Heather Gasama was hurrying to get her kids out the door. Her third grader Kyle has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the bus. He tried to ride it to Mallinckrodt Academy at the beginning of last school year.

“But it was spotty, so we ditched that,” Gasama said. “Once it goes awry five times, I'm not trusting in that anymore. I might as well just take him.”

Things were better during summer school, so she was hoping Kyle would be able to take the bus to school this year. But then the announcement came, and Kyle’s school was on the list of those that were losing bus routes.

Now the family’s day starts early. First, Kyle’s younger brother, Emmanuel, is dropped off at Wilkinson Early Childhood Center, which has before-care. Then comes the drive to Mallinckrodt to drop Kyle off.

Gasama works from home so she is able to drive her kids to school, as long as she is home by 9. She also has been receiving the weekly $75 gas card, which she said has easily covered the cost of the extra transportation.

Although she understands why the district had to do this, she still says it’s been frustrating.

“The pandemic hit, and then everybody's lives got turned upside down,” Gasama said. “And now, you know, there's something else.”

08172022_KG_BUS-SHORTAGE-9.JPG
Kate Grumke
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Kyle Gasama, 8, runs up to Mallinckrodt Academy of Gifted Instruction last Friday in Lindenwood Park.

A region-wide issue

St. Louis Public Schools is having an especially difficult time finding drivers to operate its complicated bus system, which includes magnet schools with kids coming from all over the city.

But the city district is not alone — communities across the region and nationwide are feeling the shortage.

To make things work, some districts are drawing a bigger circle around schools and asking kids within it to walk instead of taking the bus. They’re also consolidating rides, putting more kids on longer routes. And some are having students walk to the front of the neighborhood instead of getting picked up at their homes.

The Rockwood School District is physically one of the biggest in the St. Louis area and in the past couple of years, it's done all three of these things. The school district is large and some parts of it are not densely populated, so bus routes there are like a convoluted puzzle — made even harder with fewer drivers, said Mike Heyman, the district’s transportation director.

In the weeks leading up to the school year, he and his team were using software to play around with routes until they found a workable solution.

“So a lot of that little tweaking is going on now,” Heyman said.

08172022_KG_BUS-SHORTAGE-7.JPG
Kate Grumke
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Mike Heyman, Rockwood School District's transportation director, takes a phone call last month at the district's transportation headquarters in Wildwood.

Heyman says a big reason behind the driver shortage is that before the pandemic, most drivers were retired or semi-retired baby boomers.

“For the most part, 75% of the drivers were in that age,” Heyman said. “And since the pandemic, I think that they decided they'd realign their values and what was important to them.”

And, Heyman points out, it’s a part-time job that only happens nine months a year. That’s not ideal for everyone.

He was hoping to hire 15 to 20 drivers this year. He’s hired six.

John Hartin is one of those few new hires. The week before school started, Hartin was still in training. After a few exercises with plastic cones in a parking lot, he and his trainer and fellow Rockwood driver, Debbie Hensen, headed out for practice on real roads in Wildwood.

Yellow school buses weigh around 30,000 pounds and are just under 40 feet long, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that with Hartin behind the wheel. He handily made tight turns into small subdivision entrances.

Hartin was interested in the job because his wife is a Rockwood teacher and he’s familiar with the area.

“There's a need, and it coincides with my wife's off time,” Hartin said. “So I will focus and do what I can for the kids.”

08172022_BJ_BUS-SHORTAGE-4.jpg
Brent Jones
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Buses are parked at the Rockwood School District's transportation headquarters last month in Wildwood.

A month later, Hartin sent a text message saying the kids have been great and the job is satisfying. That type of feedback is what Heyman hears all the time.

“It's a very rewarding job. Drivers take very much pride in what they do,” he said. “It's a safety-sensitive position, they transport very precious cargo.”

District leaders across St. Louis encourage anyone interested in a job like Hartin’s to step forward. They’re eager to hire.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke 

Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.