Providing school transportation has been a requirement of public schools since the 1940s. But after being rattled by the pandemic, schools across the country are struggling to staff local school bus drivers. Idaho is no different. Staffing shortages in Idaho, like other states, have had a ripple effect on schools, students, and their families, sometimes forcing school closures or drastic changes in operation. In at least nine states in the U.S., they requested assistance from the National Guard.

In 2021, the Gooding School District was forced to close school for a week due to a lack of qualified bus drivers. They didn’t blame the shortage entirely on the pandemic but also cited the annual safety training necessary to meet legal requirements.

The Barriers to Attracting & Retaining Qualified Bus Drivers

While the last two years have taken a toll on recruitment and retention of all school employees, most school leaders cite the bus driver shortage in Idaho to the minimum requirements of eligible drivers – which places a burden on attracting employees to the field. In Idaho, you must have a high school diploma (or equivalent), be at least 21 years of age, possess a valid Class A or B Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) and include a passenger, school bus, and air brake endorsement. In addition, pre-employment, random and post-accident drug and alcohol testing is a federal requirement, so is drug and alcohol policy awareness training. There are a total of 93 required topics to be trained on to be a school bus driver holding the basic CDL and basic endorsements – 63 are topics of theory, and a total of 30 are topics of behind-the-wheel range training.

In addition, all experienced drivers must complete at least 10 hours – with at least three occurring before the school year starts in the fall – of documented in-service training that includes a minimum of 30-minute topic training blocks. All new and veteran drivers must meet the operations and performance requirements contained in the Standards for Idaho School Buses and Operations (SISBO).

In January and again at the end of March, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) granted a 90-day extension to temporarily waive the ‘under-the-hood’ skills test that is part of a new CDL application. While it’s only temporary, it is the hope that this waiver allows the CDL process to better reflect the responsibilities of a school bus driver without negatively affecting the safety of students. This extension will take schools and contractors into the beginning of the summer months, which is peak recruitment season for school bus drivers.

What are some unique ways that Idaho school leaders stepped up to fill this role?

Idaho never asked the National Guard to step-in and aid as a school bus driver. Some Idaho Schools immediately strategized ways to attract and retain their bus drivers by raising pay or providing stipends to people who stepped up to meet eligibility requirements as a bus driver. Others, however, had to get a little more creative than just providing a pay increase. Genesee Joint SD Superintendent Wendy Moore stepped up to get her CDL and served as a substitute bus driver multiple times throughout this school year.

“I spoke to parents at the beginning of the year about shortages school are facing including a lack of available bus drivers,” Moore said. “When they saw the Superintendent driving the bus to pick their kids up for school, parents were able to grasp how much of a struggle this issue has been for the district.”

Moore’s actions and dedication to help have set an example for others. “If I can be a school bus driver, parents can too,” Moore said. “People have begun to step up, and it’s made a difference for us as a community.”

Moore noted she felt a deeper connection to her students by driving the bus, acknowledging the district transports an average of 60 students across four daily routes and 180 square miles. “We live in a very rural area and our bus routes cover a far stretch, so it provides a great opportunity to talk to the students and really get to know them,” Moore said.

Want to hear more about this story? Check out the interview in School Transportation News by Taylor Hannon – March 16, 2022

What does it mean for the future?

Superintendent Moore is not alone – many Idaho Administrators have their CDL and school bus endorsements – and have regularly stepped up to don their many hats as school leaders.

Not unlike other types of jobs during the pandemic, staffing for public school transportation is experiencing several roadblocks. Policy makers and stakeholders need to come together to ensure we’re examining the requirements of school bus drivers while also not compromising the safety of Idaho kids.