Bus driver shortage changes students’ views on riding buses

Students+walk+up+the+trail+towards+school+after+parking+their+cars+as+a+bus+leaves+the+campus+in+the+background.+Recent+bus+driver+shortages+have+forced+some+students+to+carpool+or+drive+to+school.

Chenyao Liu

Students walk up the trail towards school after parking their cars as a bus leaves the campus in the background. Recent bus driver shortages have forced some students to carpool or drive to school.

Royce Brown

Junior Arthur Yeh sits in the front seat of the bus, staring blankly through the window. He sluggishly moves in his seat as sweat rolls down his face. The humid air radiates inside the bus, even with the windows down. He waits impatiently for his bus’ turn to leave the school parking lot so he can finally go home. 

“It’s not fun to sit in a school bus when it’s 90 degrees outside,” Yeh said with a laugh.

With the constant spread of COVID-19, and the more contagious Delta variant, many employers from various sectors are struggling to meet their quota of employees. This includes school districts and their bus drivers. According to a Sept. 2021 survey by the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), half of student-transportation coordinators described their driver shortages as “severe” or “desperate.” 

Students board the bus to go home after dismissal. As per junior Arthur Yeh, buses often drop students home late as having multiple routes slows drivers down. (Chenyao Liu)

According to the NSTA, many bus drivers have said they are afraid of the face-to-face interactions that naturally come with the profession, as well as the fact that most of the younger kids who ride the bus have not been vaccinated. Yeh said he has noticed the bus driver shortage and the problems that come along with it.

“I’ve experienced this shortage firsthand,” he said, “with the amount of buses being shuffled around, the later start time and the later time when school ends, and the fact that it used to take until 4:45 p.m. just for the buses to start leaving.”

Yeh is not the only one in Carmel who is experiencing these problems. Many other students are considering using other means of transportation, including driving to school. Sophomore Jihoon Kwon, who currently takes the bus, said he is working to get his license so he can drive to school instead. He said he hopes to use his 2016 Toyota Camry that he got for his birthday last year.

“My birthday is on Sept. 17 and that is when I will do a writing test at the BMV to get my permit,” he said. “Within a month or two, I will do my 50 hours of driving. And I will do my driving test maybe in October or something. Starting then, I would definitely like to come to school with my personal car.”

 According to Kwon, the route that his bus takes is unfavorable. He said he believes the bus driver shortage may be playing a part in this problem.

“My bus goes around my whole neighborhood,” he said. “I’m the first one to get on the bus, and by the time they circle around the neighborhood and reach the school, it’s already 9:02a.m.. So I literally have to sprint to class every single day. And I’m really sick and tired of that.”

Kristine Schmale, a bus driver who has worked at Carmel for nine years, explained why many students like Kwon are experiencing problems with bus routes. 

The changes to the school bus system this year were that many drivers are now driving three to four routes instead of two, to make up for the driver shortage and time changes of each school,” she said. “So we are working more hours than in the past years.”

Schmale drives the bus for Mohawk Trails Elementary, Clay Middle School and CHS all in one day. As for the driver shortage, Schmale said there could be various reasons.

“One could say (bus drivers) need more money, health insurance benefits or a year around job,” she said. “It’s not only Carmel that has a shortage; (the problem is) everywhere.”

Schmale said the school district is looking for ways to solve this problem.

“I think the current bus driver shortage is being handled the best it can be,” she said.  “They are hiring and training new drivers and have given us an increase in pay.”

Gary Clevenger, the Assistant Director of Facilities and Transportation for Carmel Clay Schools, agrees with Schmale about raising wages.

“We make sure we are competitive with what other districts are offering, so we can compete and attract the best drivers we can,” he said. ”Especially in a shortage like this, they are hard to come by. So you want to make sure that you are as competitive as possible.”

According to Clevenger, the steps to becoming a bus driver are long and complex. He said the difficulty of becoming a bus driver, paired with the lack of availability of bus drivers, is making hiring particularly challenging. Some states are opening up discussion on whether or not the training requirements should be lowered. However, Clevenger said he disagrees.

Yichen Liu

“You sacrifice safety by sacrificing the amount of training you give somebody,” he said. “So I don’t think that’s where we need to cut things. I think it’s a matter of having to find the folks you can, and attract them with an attractive wage and benefits package.”

Meanwhile, Yeh said he is unhappy with the buses because it interferes with his extracurricular and academic activities.

“Well, (the bus driver shortage) makes getting home really late,” Yeh said. “Getting home late makes it so that I have much less time on homework and much less time on my extracurriculars, such as piano, SAT practice and swimming. At some points, I have to pick and choose what clubs I want to go to.”

As the transportation department and drivers continue to tweak the current system, Yeh said he’s noticed improvements. He spoke about his opinion on how the school is handling the situation.

He said, “It’s working pretty well because we used to get off at 4:45 average, but now it’s like 4:25 ish, so that’s slightly better.”

There is no way of telling when COVID-19 and its devastating effects will simmer down, if ever. But one thing is for certain: people are working together to adapt and overcome challenges.

Clevenger said he is proud of each and every bus driver and their hard work this year. He said that the bus drivers are doing everything they can for the students.

“Remember, your bus driver is usually the first person you see from the school every morning, and the last person you see every afternoon,” he said. “So never underestimate the impact of a bus driver; never say somebody is just a bus driver. We are very proud of our bus drivers here at Carmel.”

We have all been working hard and long hours to make this school year run as smoothly as possible,” Schmale said. “Like they say, it takes a village.”

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