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Stepping Up and Filling Roles: Kentucky's Bus Driver Shortage 'As Bad As I've Seen'

Lisa Autry

A bus driver shortage in Kentucky and across the nation is adding to families’ stress as students return to school.  The shortage of bus drivers is complicating the start of a school year already besieged by COVID-19. 

Chip Jenkins is Transportation Director for Warren County Public Schools.  He’s normally behind a desk, but lately he’s been behind the wheel.

“It’s definitely tasking, mentally, physically," Jenkins told WKU Public Radio. "I drive six hours a day myself sometimes.”

It’s all hands on deck in the Warren County school district, which is short 30 drivers.  In his two decades on the job, Jenkins says it’s the biggest challenge he’s had since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  Drivers are currently combining routes or even doubling routes.

“We call the schools and say, 'Look, we’re gonna have to finish our regular route and come get these children after the fact,' so it could be an hour to an hour-and-a-half later before we can get them home," Jenkins said.

Some districts have even had to cancel routes, leaving it up to parents to get their children to and from school.

Credit Lisa Autry
Russellville Middle School teacher Tina Shoemake does double duty and fill ins when needed as a bus driver.

Stepping Up and Filling Roles 

In Logan County, teacher Tina Shoemake teaches 7th grade English at Russellville Middle School.  Shoemake has been moonlighting, driving a bus early in the morning, teaching all day, then driving in the afternoons, as well.

“I have to be here by six ‘o clock to set up my classroom, and then go get the bus. I drive the route to pick up the middle and high school students, drop them off, go pick up the elementary, drop them off.  I come back and teach for the rest of the day. Leave towards the end of my last class to go get the bus, pick up the middle and high, deliver them, return to get elementary and deliver them home. Day ends about five ‘o clock," Shoemake explained.

"It does make for a long day, but everyone in our district, we’ve all had to step up and fill different roles.”

Elisa Hanley, Pupil Transportation Branch Manager for the Kentucky Department of Education, said the bus driver shortage is nothing new, but COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem.

“Many drivers are retirees, and yes, Covid has played some role in it," Hanley said. "We have drivers who, before the vaccine, weren’t comfortable. We have drivers, even after the vaccine, aren’t comfortable.”

Jefferson County, the state’s largest school system needs 211 drivers.  Marshall County needs 55, and Wayne County is looking to hire 48 drivers.  Hardin County needs 25.  Eighteen are needed in Henderson County, 12 in Daviess County, and 10 in Pulaski County.  Most every Kentucky school system need a combination of full-time and substitute drivers, as well as bus monitors.

Credit Lisa Autry
Jim Nelson is a bus driver for Warren County Public Schools.

Coordinating Buses 'Almost Like a Ballet'  

Jim Nelson drives one of the special needs buses for Warren County schools.  While he hasn’t been impacted like other drivers, he knows their struggles.

“You just listen to them on the radio going, 'I’m going here and such and such driver is going there.' All the managers and mechanics are out trying to fill in the gaps," Nelson said. "It’s just amazing to hear. It’s almost like a ballet. Who’s gonna go where down what street at what time to make sure they don’t miss these kids.”

Some districts in Kentucky are offering up to $20 an hour in an effort to recruit bus drivers.  Warren County’s starting pay is $16.48 an hour.  The district is using other cash incentives, including a $500 referral bonus and a $500 sign-on bonus. 

So far, that’s helped. The district recently added five drivers and five more are in training. WCPS is also considering offering training on evenings and weekends.

Driving a school bus requires a commercial driver's license and people who have them can often find higher-paying work, but Warren County driver Jim Nelson says working with kids while driving a bus can be a rewarding profession.   

“We’re the first experience these kids are going to have with the school system in the morning. It’s the last in the afternoon," said Nelson. "You don’t know what they’re walking out of in the morning or what they’re walking into in the evening, so you want to be as positive and supportive as you can be. It makes a huge difference.”

Even if there’s a sudden influx of applicants, it can take 6-8 weeks to certify drivers who must pass a background check, get their CDL permit, and undergo at least 25 hours of training from the Kentucky Department of Education. 

Parents can expect more delays and cancellations through at least October.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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