School Bus Driver Shortage Affecting WCCUSD Special Education Students

Viva Millan-Alioto has six children, two of whom have special needs and are eligible for transportation to and from school in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. But a shortage of bus drivers has strained the system, making the service less reliable.

Millan-Alioto had to phone school officials to arrange pickups or drive herself.

“You have to be very active to get things done,” she said.

As with the shortage of teachers, the shortage of school bus drivers affects the whole country. WCCUSD, which contracts with First Student to provide transportation, responded to the shortage by consolidating bus routes. This added students to routes and increased the time they would have to spend on the bus to two hours in some cases.

According to a recent national survey, the staffing shortage over the past school year was most acute for substitute teachers, followed by bus drivers. The data showed that 57% of school districts surveyed had a “significant shortage” of bus drivers, a number that increased to 69% when looking only at urban districts.

The nationwide shortage of bus drivers began before the pandemic, according to Enrique Lopezlira, director of the low-wage work program at UC Berkeley’s Labor Center. He said two trends — a drop in immigration under President Donald Trump and an aging workforce — have led to labor shortages. And COVID-19 has exacerbated it. Lopezlira investigates why the public sector has not recovered from jobs lost during the pandemic.

“The public sector is a bit of a headache, and school districts are certainly part of it. There was a burn-out on the side of the teachers. And on the side of the bus drivers, there’s a lot of burnout that could contribute to that,” Lopezlira said.

At WCCUSD, which does not provide transportation for most of its students, children in special education are most affected by the shortage, as their individual education plans may include transportation.

School bus
School bus (Beki San Martin)

First Student said it is working to make routes more efficient and has raised the starting pay for bus drivers to $27.34 an hour. That’s about $5 more than the state average, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Elizabeth Sanders, spokesperson for WCCUSD, said the driver shortage is affecting some, but not all, students who ride school buses, and the district has responded by giving families more options.

“Students and families who are impacted by this are feeling a significant impact and we really don’t want to downplay that. And we have other families who are receiving the exact same services as before,” she said. “And at the end of the day, we still provide transportation services.”

This service goes beyond school buses to a taxi service, provided through a contract with Rids Brother Co. of El Cerrito, and mileage reimbursements the district offers to parents who drive their children to education. special at school.

fall through the cracks

Even with the options, some parents still struggle, said Millan-Alioto, who teaches special education at Dover Elementary School in San Pablo.

This fall, it took Millan-Alioto three weeks to settle her daughter in with bus transportation to and from Downer Elementary School in San Pablo. Meanwhile, she had to drive her daughter to school, which meant she was late for work.

“Spending three weeks getting his services isn’t very viable for a working person,” Millan-Alioto said.

With the long list of people involved in the process — from the curriculum specialist at Downer Elementary School to the First Student bus driver — it’s easy to break communication, she added. And the shortage of drivers exacerbates the existing challenges. With the shortage, replacement drivers are used more and they may not know the routes or the children, Millan-Alioto said. This creates space for children to slip through the cracks.

The taxi service raised further concerns when Millan-Alioto used one last year to take her son to a county facility with better supports than his elementary school. She said the same person was supposed to pick it up and drop it off, but that was not the case.

“It’s disturbing because you wake up and expect, say, your child to be in a black Toyota Prius, but it turns out to be a gray Toyota pickup,” he said. she stated.

Taxi service has improved in some ways this year, Millan-Alioto said. “Now drivers share their work phone number with parents so they can communicate, which was happening last year, but it’s much more common now.”

Get more drivers

Recruiting school bus drivers has always been difficult, but it’s gotten tougher with the pandemic, said Fernando Rivera, bus driver supervisor and trainer in the Napa Valley Unified School District, and former president of the California Association of School Transportation Officials Chapter 10, which includes Contra Costa County.

Although he is a supervisor, he still drives a bus line due to need. His manager too.

“Me and him are still driving,” Rivera said. “That shouldn’t be the case because we already have a lot to do. Especially my manager. He works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and also drives.

Getting certified to drive a bus takes a lot of time and flexibility, Rivera said. And working with children can be difficult. But the biggest downside to the job is the odd, often part-time schedule, he says.

“You get up really early, do your itinerary, and then you’re kinda free, but then you have to make sure you don’t do anything too crazy or you can’t take too long because you have to be back. at 1 p.m. Few districts give eight hours, which a lot of drivers do and a lot of complaints do — that you’re not guaranteed more hours,” Rivera said.

Guaranteeing drivers a full eight hours would entice people to join the profession, Rivera said, suggesting that extra work be added to the job to make it a full-time job.

“I think it’s just appealing. Those eight hours, you know, working full time. It’s a representation of what they want,” he said.

Rivera also said higher salaries would help. Lopezlira of the UC Berkeley Labor Center agrees.

“I think one of the things the pandemic has highlighted for a lot of people is how precarious their jobs were. And certainly bus drivers tend to be low-paying professions, with uncertain working hours and little or no benefits,” he said. “Furthermore, there is a lack of respect for these administration workers, parents and students. And because there are not enough drivers, they have been asked to work more hours and more shifts. All of these things seem to contribute to barriers to hiring. So these professions should pay more, should have better benefits, only the overall quality of these jobs can improve,” he said.

Rivera, a bus driver for seven years, stays because he likes it. Recently, he was in his yard when a young woman stopped him. She used to ride his school bus until first grade and asked him if he remembered her. Rivera did.

“The fact that I still remember the face and she still remembers me, it’s gratifying. It really is. And that’s why I think I still love what I do,” said he declared.

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