DENVER — Finding school bus drivers has been a problem across the state and nation for some years, but some industry experts say the pandemic caused recruitment and retention to stall.
"The last 18 months surrounding COVID and after COVID as we're trying still to recover from COVID, it seems to progressively have gotten worse," said David Hartzell, the Director of Transportation for Harrison School District 2 in Colorado Springs, who adds that their bus driver staffing levels are short 30%.
Hartzell is also the President of Colorado State Pupil Transportation Association (CSPTA), which has around 200 district members across the state.
"It's been very tough for school districts, and a lot of them are relying on other people within their departments, such as trainers, operations managers, dispatchers, mechanics and all other folks who also are licensed school bus drivers," he said. "They now pull them away from their duties to help cover the routes in which they are short."
The staffing shortages have impacted bus routes, caused delays and more around the state, and districts are doing what they can to get more drivers on board quickly.
Staffing levels in some districts
A spokesperson for Denver Public Schools (DPS) said in a statement Thursday that their transportation services are experiencing a shortage.
"This shortage means that drivers are having to run multiple routes each day," an email to 9NEWS read in part. "This, in turn, sometimes leads to drivers being late for pickup and dropping off students."
There are many job openings for the department right now, including 50 Commercial Driver's License (CDL) openings, 10 non-CDL openings and 25 paraprofessional openings.
The department is also offering hiring incentives.
Applicants who have a CDL are eligible for a $2,000 sign-on bonus, and if someone with a non-CDL license is being hired with the intention of getting their CDL, then they're eligible for a $1,500 sign-on bonus, the spokesperson explained.
A spokesperson for the Douglas County School District explained via email Thursday that bus routes have generally been restored to transport eligible students who attend their home school and live one mile from elementary schools and two miles from middle and high schools.
"Even though the number of bus drivers has not increased since last year when routes were two miles from elementary schools and three miles from middle and high schools, routes closer to schools have been made possible by consolidating routes," the spokesperson explained. "As a result of consolidating routes, we unfortunately have longer routes with fewer bus stops, which are in many cases different from the stops last year."
The district is currently short 55 drivers, and has the capacity for a total of 225 bus driver positions.
They're also offering a hiring incentive of $2,000 for bus drivers.
A spokesperson for Jefferson County Public Schools explained via email Thursday that they're short 77 drivers.
"We have canceled many segments and/or routes in the last couple of weeks, and have been reviewing possible temporary discontinuation of service to segments and/or routes going forward for this year," an email from the spokesperson read in part.
Their positions have the ability to guarantee a 30-hour base schedule with the opportunity to pick up extra routes with field and athletic trips, full benefits (including medical and dental), and having the training, license and required physical paid for.
A CDL usually costs about $5,000, a Jeffco spokesperson explained.
Why the struggle now?
In Jeffco's case, a spokesperson explained that they've had challenges hiring and retaining bus drivers prior to COVID, but that the pandemic made it worse.
Among other things, a school district spokesperson said over the last few years, there have been stricter guidelines implemented to obtain and maintain a CDL, mostly pertaining to medical disqualifiers.
They also have a low number of applicants, which at times get hired, complete training, get their license and then leave for a higher-paying position. Even if they do hire a good amount of people, it takes several weeks for training to be completed.
"We often see applicants who are about to come on board and back out at the last minute; there is a national commercial driver shortage so it has become a newly competitive market, and other organizations offer sign-on and retention bonuses and higher hourly rate that we cannot offer," an email from a Jeffco Public Schools spokesperson read. "Split shifts are challenging for some (but perfect for others); unemployment benefits right now can be more than what they would earn… and so on."
Resiliency and optimism
"Many people are working extraordinarily hard to continue to serve our students. We are doing our best and we have many dedicated Jeffco employees across our district who go above and beyond, especially now, to do anything and everything they can to serve students," an email from a Jeffco Public Schools spokesperson read. "However, we have reached a point where we have exhausted every resource to be able to provide the same level of service we always have. We know it is frustrating to many. It is frustrating to us too. We are trying to communicate to families about changes with as much notice as possible, and will continue to keep our community updated with any developments in this area."
Overall, Hartzell with CSPTA explained that he believes districts are certainly putting forth effort into recruitment.
Among other things, they attend job fairs.
"School districts are actively going out there trying to find people that can do it. It's a perfect job for some people, especially depending if they are maybe looking at another career, maybe going to college, maybe they have children of school age children in school," he said. "It's a perfect opportunity for them to maybe drive in the morning, spend some time in their child's school on a volunteer basis, maybe during the day, and then drive home. And then after their route, they can be home for their school age children as well."
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for school bus drivers was $34,450 in 2018, or $16.56 per hour.
SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Latest from 9NEWS