Who is Essential?

Essential workers. The news media and politicians talk about them all the time, speaking in almost reverent terms about vitally essential workers: EMTs, fire fighters, nurses, nurse aides, teachers, and restaurant workers. And yet, there is rarely a mention of school bus drivers when ‘essential workers’ are invoked.


In 1970, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell wrote the Big Yellow Taxi lyrics: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” So it is with school bus drivers who provide safe transportation for our children day-in and day-out with little fanfare. Perhaps because of that lack of fanfare, our school bus drivers often suffer from a distinct lack of recognition for their value to us and to our school children.

A related question boils down to something our parents have always instilled in us: Not to judge a book by its cover. Many people, including bus drivers and transportation professionals, have talked about bus drivers in diminishing terms using phrases like “she’s just a bus driver.” Such expressions fail to recognize that the services of a diligent and professional school bus driver are what brings a child to his or her education.

In the current dire and unprecedented environment, it is important that we address this failing as an industry and as a profession. COVID-19 has presented many opportunities for us to recognize and attest to the value of our own front-line and essential workers…school bus drivers. As with similar issues, this cause is not rooted in sentimentality, but rather it has fundamental economic and educational implications.

According to reports from several parts of the nation, many schools have been forced to revert to virtual learning programs due to the shortage of teachers and teacher aides. The public understands that connection: no teachers, no classroom activities.  Increasingly in recent months, however, districts are reporting the need to resort to virtual or hybrid programming because there are not enough school bus drivers to transport children to and from school.  The public, for perhaps the first time, is now hearing that bus driver shortages or illnesses are the root cause of the shutdown. 

Reports of COVID-related driver shortages continue to spread throughout school districts across the country as the pandemic deepens. These trends are affecting local school board decisions about re-opening in-person instruction. A search for areas affected by COVID-related driver shortages turned up Colorado Springs, Colorado; Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota; Marysville, California; Marion County, Florida; Utica, New York; Bangor, Maine; Pocono Mountain, Pennsylvania; Decatur, Illinois. In these areas it is not a matter of how to open, because with no drivers there is no option but to close or go virtual.

In a convoluted way, this situation is clarifying the ‘essential’ nature of school bus drivers. More than 25 million American students rely on some 480,000 yellow school buses to access their education. If there are not enough drivers in the seats of those 480,000 school buses, many of those students simply will not be able to get to school safely.

In the current environment, where people from the President to the CDC to governors and school administrators want to get children back into classrooms, a dire shortage of healthy and qualified bus drivers is a serious problem. We simply do not want or need a school bus driver shortage in this time of need.

Beyond the COVID-related absences, there are issues related to drivers who are stepping away from the job for personal and professional reasons. The reality for many is that school calendars have been fluctuating and inconsistent for the better part of a year now. That lends uncertainty for potential drivers’ employment status and their paychecks.  Drivers are not the highest paid employees in most schools and contract operations, and that fact combined with a lack of certainty is reason enough to find alternate employment. As operators (public and private) work through furloughs, layoffs and reduction in hours, drivers are doing what they must to provide for their own families and taking leave.

NAPT has conducted surveys on the driver shortage that operators have experienced over the past several years and we learned a lot from those efforts about the causes and obstacles to correcting the problem. Those findings can be instructive at this time as well.

The survey found that hours and wages/benefits are an issue for drivers. During a pandemic with school cutbacks, how can we address those needs or present alternatives? How are we expecting drivers to weather the uncertainties of school closures, partial openings, furloughs and more?

The survey found that the working environment and the presence of family/community committed to a cause played a big role in people enjoying the work and continuing as drivers. How do we find ways to keep that sense of community alive during social distancing and in the absence of group functions? How have we tried to use social platforms for these types of activities?

Key among the responses, however, was the message that drivers sought to be recognized as relevant and valuable to parents and to school leaders for the work they do. Fundamentally, this pandemic presents us with opportunities to celebrate and call attention to their work.

And therein lies a call to action. Transportation professionals have this moment to stand with our drivers and safety teams when funding for operational and health needs are required. We have an opportunity to reinforce to school leaders the need to recognize and respond to the fact that drivers and transportation services are indispensable elements of their ability to get through the worst points of the pandemic. We have an obligation to ensure that our teams and drivers, as front-line workers, are supported with PPE and opportunities for vaccination.

These are important moments. Our teams need to know that their own leaders are speaking for them and extoling the worth and benefits of what they do each day. We must not miss the moment. 

Our NAPT ACTS Community page (NAPT Experience | RethinkEDU) has several discussion items on this topic and we welcome your thoughts and interactions. Your discussion points will help us develop new programs and support for you as members and as professionals dealing with these issues on a daily basis. We encourage you to sign up for the ACTS program and participate in the COMMUNITY discussions.  In that way, we all can support and help one another move forward in new and exciting ways.

Peter Mannella (pfman5@gmail.com) is chair of the NAPT Public Policy Committee.

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