School bus engines whirred to life as drivers throughout the Victoria school district’s bus barn prepared for their afternoon routes.
The drivers walked around the vehicles checking tires for any flats and working through a laundry list of safety to-dos before they picked students up Wednesday afternoon.
Bus checks are a norm for drivers, but this year some drivers now drive combined routes as the district, like many others, struggles with a driver shortage.
About 33 drivers work for the district with 13 openings for drivers and substitute positions, the district’s Transportation Director Shanquil Fennell said.
“Due to the driver shortage, many routes are being adjusted to accommodate routes that do not have a driver assigned to it,” he said.
This is not a Victoria-specific problem.
The National Association for Pupil Transportation reported in August that district and contract bus operators are facing serious challenges with respect to staffing of the driver pool this fall.
About half of student-transportation coordinators, who participated in the study, described their school bus driver shortages as either “severe” or “desperate,” according to the National Association for Pupil Transportation.
This shortage has led to longer bus routes, more students on the bus and top department administrators taking over a route, as well.
Victoria parent Jason Black has several issues with his children riding the bus.
Black has a high school junior and a fifth grader at home, and this is their first year with the district. The youngest was supposed to attend Vickers Elementary School, but because of spacing he was moved to Schorlemmer Elementary School, Black said.
The change was manageable for the family, but the problem came with the bus. Both of Black’s sons would ride the same bus, which means elementary, middle and high school students would ride together.
This was an issue for Black because he doesn’t think a younger child should intermingle with teenagers. They have a different mentality and way of interacting, Black said.
“My child does not belong on that bus,” he said. “He is an elementary school child.”
Some rural routes pick up elementary, middle and high school students at the same time. Most routes in town are three-tiered, which means students are transported by their age cohort, Fennell said.
As for Black’s child, lower level students who are attending a campus other than the campus assigned to their boundary area are required to ride during the high school route so they can be transferred to another bus. That bus will then take them to the appropriate campus.
“In many routes in which upper and lower level students ride simultaneously, Transportation Services tries to assign a bus monitor,” Fennell said.
Black said his youngest would get on the bus at 6:25 a.m. when school starts at 8 a.m.
“I want a regular bus that will take my kid to and from school without having to take a three-hour tour around Victoria,” he said.
Because of the lengthy bus route and mixed age groups, Black and his family decided to pull his youngest from the bus and take him to and from school, he said. This takes him and his wife away from work and previous obligations when they hoped to rely on the bus.
“My child is not on the bus because I opted not to,” he said. “I feel really sad and bad for those parents and those children that don’t have that option.”
Students who live in town typically have a 30-45 minute bus ride, Fennell said. Students who live in rural areas will have longer rides that can span anywhere between an hour and a half to two hours.
On a typical route, about 45-55 students ride the bus, though it depends on the route, he said. The buses have a capacity of about 71-78 passengers.
“We are currently having drivers take daily counts at each pick up and drop off location, so we can potentially see where additional adjustments can be made,” Fennell said. “However, all students are seated, and no rider stands during the route.”
Everyone at the district’s transportation department helps where they can, including Fennell, the department’s top administrator.
He has picked up a morning and afternoon route this school year because of the driver shortage. Fennell and the other drivers have 5:30 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. routes to pick up and drop off students.
“As a director, I should be in the office,” he said. “But I’ve been driving every day since school started.”