Bus driver shortage among the thorniest issues McHenry County schools face as COVID-19 persists

Solutions scarce with too few people qualified or interested in the job, lobbyist says

Unlike in Massachusetts, the National Guard is unlikely to be a solution to the biggest bus driver shortage that Illinois school districts have faced in years, state Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, told Woodstock School District 200 officials last week.

The lack of transportation staff in Woodstock is not unique among McHenry County school districts as the COVID-19 pandemic persists, but it was marked by parents pushing back against a proposal that would have changed Woodstock’s school start times so many of its youngest learners would be in class just after 7 a.m. as a way of addressing the issue.

That idea was killed by Superintendent Mike Moan after he heard strong opposition from families.

But without some type of influx of transportation staff, or another schedule change allowing fewer drivers to transport more students, he and other McHenry County education officials fear an unmanageable transportation conundrum will arise this winter as more drivers need days off for illness and other reasons.

When Reick told the District 200 school board that it was highly unlikely Gov. JB Pritzker would direct the state’s National Guard to fill the bus driver shortage and that it’s unclear if the Guard even has the resources needed to tackle a statewide school transportation problem, board member John Parisi thought of another body the school system might contact for help.

He suggested reaching out to the Illinois Association of School Boards, a lobbying group of which District 200 is a member.

“I have not talked to anybody from any district – Cook County, Kane County, here – that isn’t facing this problem to some degree or another,” Parisi said. “I’m a little surprised I haven’t seen anything from the IASB.”

But the lobbying group isn’t sure about what it could do, as its leadership said the bus driver shortage is not a legislative issue, but one of supply and demand in the state’s job market.

The group “has ongoing conversations with state officials and stakeholders to communicate the many challenges school districts are facing,” Associate Executive Director Kara Kienzler said in a statement. Kienzler said staffing shortages for several positions, including drivers, are concerns in all reaches of Illinois.

Moan also contacted the Illinois State Board of Education to see if it could offer any other resources, and he brought up the recent situation at Oswego School District 300 where dozens of bus drivers and monitors called in sick and did not show up to work, stranding students at home and forcing a cancellation of in-person learning for the day.

The Woodstock school system is “not sure what could be done, but awareness [of the problem] is the first step and there seemed to be a lack of it at the state level,” district spokesman Kevin Lyons said.

Woodstock Community Unit School District 200 school bus driver Bill Chrisos performs a routine pre-route safety check on his vehicle prior to leaving to pick students up for school on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Woodstock.

Behind the shortage is a number of factors: Drivers have tough schedules, working a morning and afternoon shift, said Penny Fleming, director of transportation for Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 and Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155, which share buses.

It’s also a huge responsibility to take care of 60 kids while driving, Fleming said.

Quite a few bus drivers are older, Fleming noted. Some at Districts 47 and 155 chose to retire early after COVID-19 hit.

“A lot of it is fear and for their own health because they are on a bus with a lot of kids in close quarters,” Fleming said.

Since March 2020, the two Crystal Lake-based districts had about five or six bus drivers leave because of the pandemic, Fleming said.

The process to become a driver also takes longer now than it has in the past.

Before, prospective bus drivers could walk into the McHenry County Regional Office of Education to get their fingerprints taken after getting interviewed by Fleming. That office is now appointment only.

It’s the same situation when it comes to drivers getting their motor vehicle report at Secretary of State facilities, where they either face long lines or having to book an appointment.

“All of these things have turned a three-, three-and-a-half week process into now what can be a five- or six-week process,” Fleming said. “People are getting tired of waiting, and they’re finding other jobs.”

As a result of the shortage, Fleming said, ride times have increased, and they are having to put more kids on one bus than they might normally have in the past, with up to three on a seat.

The ISBE has suggested school districts use some of the billions of federal COVID-19 relief dollars spread statewide across school systems to help recruit new drivers and set up alternative means of transportation for students, such as providing stipends to parents who drive students.

State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said Tuesday in a weekly ISBE newsletter that districts should be reviewing ridership data to ensure routes aren’t inflated by families who initially signed up but no longer use the bus. She said they could also use federal pandemic relief funds to offer before- and after-school programs that could allow “flexibility in scheduling.”

She also suggested that districts “promote the opportunity to earn income and retirement to the people who are already driving to and from school every day,” mentioning kitchen and maintenance staff, coaches, paraprofessionals and even teachers as potential candidates.

Collaborating with neighboring districts to share substitute drivers is also an option.

“Drivers can be registered with multiple employers, creating a win-win situation for everyone,” Ayala said.

Woodstock Community Unit School District 200 school bus driver Bill Chrisos performs a routine pre-route safety check on his vehicle prior to leaving to pick students up for school on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Woodstock.

She provided these other strategies and statements in the newsletter:

  • Reach out to local civic and religious organizations where members may be looking for meaningful part-time opportunities. In rural areas, go to farm cooperatives and grain elevators to connect with farmers who may already have commercial driver’s licenses.
  • Reevaluate bus driver pay and benefit packages. School bus drivers typically are underpaid for the amount of time and energy they put into the job. Make sure they feel supported in other ways, too – for example, that discipline issues are handled in a constructive and effective manner.

McHenry County school districts this year have tried to make driver jobs more attractive.

Richmond-Burton High School District 157 and its feeder Nippersink Elementary School District 2, for instance, just raised pay rates by 25% for drivers who take students to and from athletic events, field trips and other extracurricular activities, to $25 an hour from $20, said Superintendent Tom Lind, who oversees both districts.

“We have a very competitive benefit plan for drivers,” Lind said, adding it includes a zero out-of-pocket premiums for single health insurance, quarterly bonuses of $100, flexible health spending accounts and single coverage for dental care.

McHenry Elementary School District 15 and McHenry High School District 156 also are looking to hire drivers, but their renegotiation of a collective bargaining deal with their transportation employees union has helped to retain drivers already on staff and to hire new ones this year, Superintendent Josh Reitz said.

A banner advertising bus driver positions available with McHenry-based school districts is displayed along Route 120 in McHenry on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021.

At Districts 47 and 155, bus drivers who have children can bring them on their routes, which helps working parents, Fleming said. Starting pay is 17.87 an hour; they get sick and personal days as well as paid holidays; the district also contributes to their insurance and a pension plan.

“We’re currently in contract negotiations and working with the union to make more improvements on the wages and benefits package,” Fleming said.

People are able to apply to become a driver on the district’s website, or they can just walk in to the bus garage at 1204 McHenry Ave.

Ideally, Fleming said, she would like to see the districts she oversees to get 18 to 20 more drivers.

But, even with these open positions, Fleming said, “we’re still getting our kids to school every day.”

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