Bus driver shortage requires school staff to take the wheel

A bill pending in the N.C. House would give principals more leeway in disciplinary policies.

Listen to this story (5 minutes)

  • Bus driver shortages force some districts in North Carolina to require school personnel to drive buses.
  • The shortage is partly blamed on the school closures during COVID-19 pandemic.

A school bus driver shortage has the Nash County Public School District considering implementing a policy that would require teacher assistants, janitors, and other school personnel to drive school buses.

A district spokeswoman told Carolina Journal in an emailed statement that they currently have about ten school bus driver vacancies, but they are averaging around 15 drivers out daily. The district’s substitute drivers are now full-time drivers, and staff from the transportation office are also driving buses.

The district was proactive this summer in asking parents to formally request bus transportation so they could accommodate all families. 

The spokeswoman said that despite the district’s best efforts to help solve the issue, including combining bus routes and reaching out to the public to recruit bus drivers, it has exhausted its resources in making sure they have enough drivers.

As a result, there aren’t any substitute drivers remaining at this time.

The district said their most important goal is to have students in the classroom learning. 

The spokeswoman said it was important to note that the district had such a policy in the past, and they are revisiting it. The Nash County Board of Education has also decided to look to neighboring schools to see what they have done with the same situation. 

The school bus driver shortage is nothing new. School districts from across the state have been forced to have dual-employment employees – including teacher assistants, janitors, and others, pick up the slack by working two different jobs.

In 2019, the Warren County Board of Education adopted a policy that added driving a school bus to the requirements of teacher assistants that were new hires, and child nutrition and custodial staff would also have the option to drive a bus.

Vance, Craven, Franklin, Edgecombe, Lenoir, Jones, Johnston, Rutherford and Pitt counties are just some of the counties requiring teacher assistants to drive school buses as needed. 

Many bus drivers were retirees but decided to quit once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

Still, others cited disparities in pay as another reason why some drivers have decided to quit. The latest budget passed by the North Carolina General Assembly saw a pay increase of $15 an hour for non-certified school personnel. Some previous drivers may not make as much per hour or take a while to catch up to someone starting at the same pay rate. 

The Nash County Schools spokeswoman said if the proposal is approved, not every person would be required to run a full-time route and would hopefully only be needed to pick up one or two runs a week. They would receive additional pay for working in the new position.

When asked about safety concerns, the spokeswoman said anyone driving a school district bus would undergo all licensing requirements and appropriate training, including a class. If an employee has a medical condition preventing them from driving a bus, they would be opted out, provided they have medical documentation.

 She said the district has some concerns that they may lose employees if the policy is adopted, but if action isn’t taken soon, some of the district’s students may not have transportation to school.

The policy is currently in committee, and there may be some revisions depending on conversations with the board. It is also possible that the district will grandfather in existing employees and start with new hires. 

The district stressed that the proposal does not reflect an employee’s value. “But, as a public organization that is accountable to the state, student academic performance, and serving each child, we must come up with a way to make sure all students are able to get to school and participate in a full instructional day,” according to the emailed statement.

The North Carolina Association of Educators did not respond to a request for comment before the publication of this article.