Most school years across North Carolina are well underway, and that means giant yellow school buses are out on the roads each morning and afternoon. But just as universal as the first day of school is a near-constant bus driver shortage in districts across the state.
The week before classes started in August, Jannai Rodgers eased into the seat behind the wheel of a 40-foot school bus. Rodgers and others in the district practiced driving their routes to get ready for the new year.
Rodgers has been driving school buses for 17 years. She loves connecting with students, and making them feel valued - especially middle schoolers.
“I think because they’re still trying to figure out who they want to be," Rodgers said. "I think they’re the ones that are given the least credit for their age because they’re no longer little kids but they’re not yet young adults.”
As fulfilling as Rodgers feels the job is, she recalled that finding enough drivers has always been a problem.
“I had friends in Baltimore, Maryland and all that – same thing. There’s a shortage of drivers everywhere.”
She said there are a few reasons. Most notably, the low pay. But she also cited split hours during the day, and the difficulty in accruing 40 hours of work in a week.
Living in some school districts can be more expensive than what drivers can afford. Rodgers drives a bus in Chapel Hill and lives there with her husband, but said a lot of her coworkers can’t afford to live in town.
“I’ve noticed a lot are driving almost an hour away," she said. "Some are living in Burlington, some are living in Bahama.”
Brad Johnson is well aware of all these issues. He’s the transportation director of Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools. To deal with a full-time bus driver shortage this year, the district has made other accommodations.
"The way we’ve approached that problem is that we’ve consolidated three bus routes for the opening of schools," Johnson said.
That didn’t solve the problem completely. Earlier this summer the district superintendent sent out an email to parents desperately searching for bus drivers. Along with that, Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools started offering a $1,000 bonus for drivers. It’s worked-- 19 drivers are going through training now and will be ready to go soon after school starts.
“The remaining nine buses that we have available open for the beginning of school we will cover with part time employees," Johnson said. "And also with office staff.”
Bus driver shortages affect school districts in every corner of the state. Johnson said districts will deal with the problem as long as they need to transport kids to and from school.
It's also an issue that goes back a long way. Back in the 1930's through the late 1980's districts across the country had a unique solution: They hired students.
“I drove for Hickory City Public Schools system in 1986 and 1987 which would’ve been my junior and senior years of high school,” said David Duncan, a former student in the Hickory Public Schools.
Today, Duncan runs a plastics and wire company. But back then Duncan was one of many students to drive school buses before and after his own classes. And he excelled.
“My senior year was the year that I was voted or bestowed the great honor of school bus driver of the year," Duncan said. "I’ve had a lot of fun with that over the years with my kids and friends.”
Duncan said he was surprised to hear that there is a shortage of bus drivers – he just figured they’d always be able to find students who could drive buses. The year after he stopped driving, in 1988, the U.S. Labor Department banned 17-year-olds from driving school buses in North and South Carolina – the last two states that hired student bus drivers.
Nowadays, there are more restrictions and certifications to become a school bus driver. You have to have a good driving record, earn a commercial driver's license.
And you have to be at least 18 years old.