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Bus driver shortages occurring locally due to pandemic

Along with the challenge of implementing new procedures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on school buses, two of the three local school districts started the year short on bus drivers.

“Bus drivers are always hard to come by. Nationwide there’s a shortage of bus drivers on a regular basis,” said Betty Jo Peterson, Picayune School District Transportation Director.

“We had a couple that did not come back due to COVID-19, but we always start off the year a little short.”

The Picayune School District started the year with 35 drivers, two less than Peterson would like. Two weeks before the semester started she needed four drivers, but two former bus drivers returned.

The Poplarville School District started this semester five drivers short, said Transportation Director Rossie Creel. The district has 24 regular routes, so needs at least 24 full time drivers and one full time substitute.

Some drivers in Poplarville left due to COVID-19 concerns, while others left for better paying jobs. Every driver who left their full time position stayed on as a part time substitute, said Creel.

At both school districts, staff members who are certified to drive school buses fill in when needed.

“We’re very blessed—we have a great superintendent that if I get short, he’ll get on a bus and drive,” said Peterson.

Currently, all bus driver positions in the Pearl River County School District are filled, said Pearl River County Transportation Director Lisa Beech.

“Basically there’s peaks and valleys. You’ll go through a shortage of a few and then a couple months later you’ve got all your positions filled. It’s difficult to say what really causes that,” said Beech.

Often, drivers leave for better paying jobs, said Beech. Creel noted that bus drivers are not paid especially well.

“Most of the people that work here, they love working with children, they’re not looking for a full time job and they’re not here for the pay,” said Beech.

Becoming a Driver

Bus drivers in the Picayune School District need to be able to pass a background check and a drug screen, as well as have a license with endorsements for CDL B with air brakes, passenger and school bus, said Peterson.

“If they don’t have the license part we can help them train,” she said.
Along with good driving skills, school bus drivers need patience and a love for children, said Beech.

New Precautions

Bus drivers now face the additional risks and work that comes with a pandemic. But the Pearl River County School District has not had any drivers leave due to COVID-19, which Beech credits to additional measures the district has taken to make buses safer.

“We have automatic temperature checks installed in our buses. We also have hand sanitizer stations in the stairwell as people are getting on the bus. We feel like with those extra measures, everyone on the bus is safer,” said Beech.

With the automatic temperature checks, students will present their forehead or wrist as they board the bus. The no touch device beeps once if the temperature is acceptable and twice if it detects the student has a fever.

“The driver just has to listen for the beep,” said Beech.

The district’s business manager is “a very forward thinker” and found the devices early in the pandemic, she said.

With the statewide mask mandate passed by Governor Tate Reeves on Tuesday, children are required to wear a mask on school buses.

“We had an amazing day yesterday,” said Peterson. “For first days, I would probably count it as one of our best. I’m just amazed with how well the students have done with the masks, even the little bitty ones. They’re troopers.”

School districts are also loading buses from back to front to prevent students from walking past each other, enacting additional cleaning and encouraging parents to drop their child off at school when they can.

Creel said the Poplarville School District is asking parents to check their child’s temperature before putting them on a school bus. Student temperatures will be taken once they arrive at school. As the semester begins, transportation may be slowed due to the development of bus seating charts, he said.

In the Pearl River County District, parents need to request transportation through the transportation department, whereas before it was automatic, said Beech. If a parent needs to request transportation and has not spoken with the district’s transportation department already, they can call 601-798-9977.

All three districts have shortened the time spent in class in order to have additional time for transportation.

The Pearl River County School District has added additional routes to reduce the number of students on the bus. The Poplarville School District was unable to add routes because it covers such a large geographic region, according to previous coverage. Due to the driver shortage Picayune School District combined some routes, said Peterson, but she still expects the number of students on buses to be lower than previous years.

“There’s not as many registered and there are many parents bringing kids to school,” she said.

The school districts have differences in how they are running their buses, along with broader differences in how they are reopening schools. Beech said it’s good that districts have the ability to make reopening plans specific to their resources and needs.

“Each district is different, as far as money it receives for education, some are more rural and some are more city, which makes a difference as far as transportation and for Internet,” said Beech.

While Picayune and Poplarville’s school districts started classes on Thursday, buses in the Pearl River County School District will not run until Aug. 17.

Their semester starts Aug. 13, but the first two days will be virtual to educate students on the various procedures before they return to a physical campus. The two days of virtual instruction will also provide a test run to ensure students and parents can access virtual education in case a closure occurs.

After five months without school buses on county roads Peterson is worried distracted driving and texting while driving could be a significant problem, she said. In recent years, the district has added brighter lights on school buses to make them more visible.

“Keep your eyes on the road. Keep your eyes on the buses,” said Peterson.