Santa Clara County school districts are doing all they can to get bus drivers on board amid a nationwide shortage.

Ongoing vacancies have drivers stretched thin, prompting schools to woo potential employees with higher compensation and training opportunities. The shortages also mean longer bus routes, which can cause students to be late for school. Officials say there’s a learning loss if students don’t arrive on time.

Eight-six percent of districts have open bus driver positions, while 79 percent are reporting lower applicant numbers compared to last year, according to a national EdWeek Research Center study. Student transportation declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, which translated locally to San Jose Unified School District cutting bus service to 17 schools in the 2020-21 school year.

Moreland School District in San Jose is offering new bus drivers a $1,000 hiring bonus, said Superintendent Clover Codd. The district made the decision after struggling to fill its vacancies since June.

“We’re still able to deliver service to our students and families without impacting the school schedule,” Codd told San Jose Spotlight. “But should one of those drivers get sick—just one—that will definitely impact our ability to get kids to school on time, pick them up in a timely manner and get them home after school.”

The district employs six drivers, and 10 percent of the population, or approximately 400 students across eight campuses, rely on bus service, Codd said. Drivers are pushing the clock as they take on additional routes in light of the vacancies.

“Getting kids to school on time is a primary concern of ours just because kids have missed so much in-person school due to the pandemic,” Codd told San Jose Spotlight. “Every minute counts at this point.”

Bus driver shortages are impacting the Bay Area as a whole, said Stacy Murphy, vice president of Teamsters Local 853 which represents bus drivers in some San Jose schools. New drivers are scarce, which means current drivers are taking on more than usual.

“They’re exhausted,” Murphy told San Jose Spotlight. “(Schools) have routes that aren’t being covered because they don’t have enough drivers.”

School districts are actually competing with tech companies for drivers as workers return to the office, said Meredyth Hudson, Campbell Union High School District’s chief of strategy and human capital. The district needs to hire three drivers and provides transportation for special needs students, as well as athletes or clubs headed to events.

“We struggle to compete with companies like Google, Apple and others that provide transportation for staff,” Hudson told San Jose Spotlight.

School bus drivers also require credentials and other qualifications. Hudson said the district is working to address the problem by providing training to potential candidates.

“We have access to a trainer so we try to provide as much as we can in-house, especially if someone wants to work with us, but maybe is missing one component of the requirements,” she said.

Understaffing means routes can shift for drivers on a daily basis with little warning, Murphy said. For school bus drivers that specifically transport students with disabilities or special needs, building a yearlong connection with students can be difficult.

“Some of these drivers will continuously pick the same routes just to stay with the same students because a lot of these students need that bonding,” Murphy told San Jose Spotlight. “There’s a lot of autistic kids, kids with special needs, (where) it helps if they see the same drivers, the same faces.”

Transportation is a critical aspect to educational equity, Codd said. The district aims to provide as many students with reliable bus service as possible, as families deal with high inflation.

“Cutting out transportation just does not seem like a viable option. So many families are struggling these days, and the cost of transportation and the cost of gas, it’s all increased,” Codd told San Jose Spotlight. “Bus drivers provide an essential service.”

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Loan-Anh Pham | San Jose Spotlight

San Jose Spotlight