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Central and northern PA school districts and companies struggle to find bus drivers

Diane Wesesky, the regional manager of school bus operations with Fullington, fills in as a school bus driver.
Sydney Roach
Diane Wesesky, the regional manager of school bus operations with Fullington, fills in as a school bus driver.

School districts and bus companies in central and northern Pennsylvania say they’re facing a bus driver shortage, despite efforts to address some of the biggest challenges drivers face.

The state has tried to alleviate the shortage by making it easier to get a Commercial Driver’s License. Several companies have given drivers raises and offered sign-on bonuses. But they’re still having a hard time finding new drivers.

Many school bus drivers are retirees, including Jim Dougherty. He’s been driving for Student Transportation of America, which serves the Altoona Area School District, for about five years.

“I retired back in 2015. I needed something to do to keep me active. So I didn't sit down and do like a lot of people do in a couple of years: they die because they become inactive," Dougherty said.

Dougherty said bus driving is a good job for anyone who wants a part-time job with extra time in the morning and in the afternoon. He also said it’s good for someone who wants to earn extra money.

“If you're trying to support a family off of it, it's pretty hard. The pay isn't, you know, doesn't compensate for what it costs nowadays, the cost of living and everything," Dougherty said.

The company he works for does offer a $1,000 sign-on bonus for anyone who requires CDL training, or $1,500 for those who are already certified.

But even places that have increased pay are struggling to find drivers. Last year, State College Area School District bus drivers got a raise. Starting pay is now $20.40 an hour. Randy Brown, the district's finance and operations director, said this is the first year they’ve had significant problems covering bus runs. They’ve had to consolidate five routes.

“And we’re potentially looking at even more," Brown said.

Brown said there aren’t enough substitute drivers to fill in when someone calls off. He said there have been about two instances this year where a bus driver had to pick up someone else’s run as well as their own, making students late for school.

State College Area School District has had to send out employees who usually do office or engineering work to drive bus runs.

Some bus companies have been turning to employees with CDL licenses, whose main job is not driving a bus. Diane Wesesky is the regional manager of school bus operations with Fullington, but she’s also been filling in pretty regularly on bus routes.

Wesesky said many people are intimidated by the idea of driving a bus, but that it’s not as bad as it might seem. She'll even let potential drivers do a test drive.

A hiring sign outside of Fullington's office in Duncansville, PA.
Sydney Roach
A hiring sign outside of Fullington's office in Duncansville, PA.

Fullington is contracted to drive buses for several school districts in central Pennsylvania, including Hollidaysburg in Blair County.

“Hollidaysburg is our largest district that has the shortage. We are short about six drivers," Wesesky said.

Wesesky said it became much more common for people to fill in during the pandemic when many drivers quit, or even died.

“We did have a lot of people I know within our own company. You know, there was people that lost their lives because of COVID hitting so hard," Wesesky said.

Even outside of COVID-19, children can spread illnesses like colds and flu. Wesesky said their buses are disinfected daily, but many drivers seem more worried about getting sick since COVID, especially since many are older.

There’s more time for sickness to spread on the bus since students are on buses longer with route consolidations or drivers having to double up on runs.

Michael Kiehl is the transportation and purchasing manager for the Warren County School District, which covers 788 square miles. Geographically speaking, it’s the second largest school district in Pennsylvania.

“We have routes as long as an hour and a half one way with kids," Kiehl said.

Kiehl said those long drives can be hard on drivers, especially considering the harsher winters in the northern counties.

The Warren County School District has taken a look at route consolidation and adding more kids to buses. But that would make routes even longer. Kiehl said the driver shortage has not had a significant effect on their operations yet. He believes one of the things that has helped with staff retention is adding cameras to buses.

“This has helped with addressing student behaviors on the bus. Camera footage is so indisputable, as far as when we need to go and address a situation or verify a situation," Kiehl said.

Kiehl agreed higher pay and improved safety could help fix the bus driver shortage. He also suggested changes to the CDL test.

“We are advocates for a school bus driver's license where we would remove some of the requirements that you get for a CDL like the under the hood requirement, and just have a specialized school bus driver's license," Kiehl said.

In August, PennDOT did implement a new version of the CDL skills test to waive the “under the hood” requirement, which made drivers identify engine components. But the change isn’t permanent. It lasts through Nov. 27, 2024.

Drivers who do not take the “under the hood” test also cannot drive out of state, according to a PennDOT fact sheet.
Drivers who do not take the “under the hood” test also cannot drive out of state, according to a PennDOT fact sheet.

Drivers who do not take the "under the hood" test also cannot drive out of state, something bus drivers say is often necessary when going on field trips or to athletic events.

If the bus driver shortage continues, school districts say they’ll have to keep coming up with creative solutions to get kids to school. The State College Area School District is considering expanding how far students need to live from school before becoming eligible for bus transportation. The School District of Philadelphia offers $300 per month for families to take their own kids to school. The West Shore School District south of Harrisburg held some remote learning days because there were not enough drivers to transport students.

Sydney Roach