HELENA, Mont. – Montana school district offers bonuses of $ 4,000 and invites people to test drive big yellow school buses in hopes of getting them into jobs schools struggle to fill as kids return to classes in person.

A Delaware school district offered to pay parents $ 700 to arrange for their own transportation, and a Pittsburgh district delayed the start of classes and said hundreds more children would have to walk to get to the school. ‘school. Schools across the United States are offering hiring bonuses, providing the training needed to obtain a commercial driver’s license, and increasing hourly wages to attract more drivers.

The shortage of bus drivers complicates the start of a school year already besieged by the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19, a controversial disagreement over masking requirements and the challenge of catching up on lost educational ground as the pandemic raged last year.

The shortage of drivers is nothing new, but a labor shortage in many sectors and the lingering effects of the pandemic made it worse, as around half of the workforce was over 65. years and older vulnerable to the virus, said Joanna McFarland, co-founder and CEO of school bus service company HopSkipDrive, which tracks school bus problems.

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His company conducted a survey in March which found that nearly 80% of the districts that responded were struggling to find enough bus drivers.

“It’s really at a breaking point,” McFarland said.

First Student, a company that outsources bus service to county school districts, held test driving events this summer they called “Big Bus, No Big Deal” in Montana and many other places. many other states to give people the opportunity to try their hand at driving. The hope was that this could remove a barrier for those who might otherwise be interested in helping children get to and from school safely, said Dan Redford, of First Student in Helena, in Montana.

“We actually set up a closed course at the fairgrounds, and we invited the public to come in and learn that it’s okay to drive a big bus,” Redford said. “They’re actually quite easy to drive. You sit high. You have a lot of eyesight.

In Helena, the company has 50 bus drivers and needs 21 more before classes start on August 30, a deficit Redford called unprecedented.

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Attendance ended up being low at Helena’s event, but similar demonstrations, like the one held recently in Seattle, led to more entries.

The delta variant has also led the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend the universal wearing of the mask in schools, especially for children too young to be vaccinated. But in many areas there is a fierce wave of protest against the masks.

First Student has lost drivers from Helena to hide the demands of the buses, Redford said.

“I know I’ve had a lot of drivers who don’t believe it and don’t want to have to deal with this,” Redford said.

For parents, school bus headaches come at a particularly difficult time.

Monica Huff was at home in quarantine with a probable case of COVID-19 on Wednesday when she learned that her 14-year-old son’s school bus had failed to show up at her stop in suburban Houston.

“I was worried. I was scared.… I didn’t know where he was,” she said. She felt particularly helpless because she couldn’t go and look for him on her own without putting the others on. in danger of infection.

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Eventually, she learned that the primary school bus driver picked up the older children and took them to high school. She was relieved to know that he had arrived at school, although his late start time was also a concern as he is still catching up on his studies after falling behind in distance learning early in. Last year.

“There is cause for concern this year with people getting angry with masks,” she said.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott initially banned Texas school districts from requiring masks, but successful court challenges on Thursday led the Texas Education Agency to suspend enforcement of its ban while challenges go through court.

In Florida, many of the largest school districts are using managers as drivers and are implementing other interim measures to bring students to class as the school year begins against a statewide political struggle for masks between Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who wants to ban mask warrants, and districts convinced they are necessary to keep children safe.

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President Joe Biden on Wednesday ordered his Education Secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked warrants for school masks and other health measures designed to protect students from COVID-19 .

Economic forces are also at play in the shortage of bus drivers. Driving a school bus requires a commercial driver’s license which can take weeks to obtain. And people who do can often find a better paying job that doesn’t require dividing the day for pickup and return. The demand for commercial drivers is only increasing with the surge in online shopping linked to the pandemic, McFarland said with HopSkipDrive.

But working with kids who drive a bus can be a rewarding profession, and the hours work well for stay-at-home parents or retirees looking to supplement their income, entrepreneurs say. There is no obligation to work at night, on weekends or on public holidays. Field trips and sporting events can add more hours for those who wish, Redford said with First Student.

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His business allows bus drivers whose children are at least 1 year old to get on the bus with them while they work, saving on child care costs, Redford said.

A Michigan school district was able to find enough drivers by ensuring they could work enough hours in the district, including as janitors or in catering, to have health insurance coverage, said Dave Meeuwsen, executive director of the Michigan Association of Pupil Transportation.

In the suburb of Salt Lake City, the Canyons School District was in dire straits about a month ago. It was down by around 30 drivers, so its workforce would have been too small to handle all of its routes, spokesman Jeff Haney said. Administrators have said office workers may need to get their commercial driver’s licenses just to get all the kids to and from school.

“It was very alarming and very worrying,” he said.

The district also increased the wages of bus drivers and offered a program to help people get their business licenses. In the weeks that followed, it saw a slight increase in applications. If they continue to arrive at the same rate, the district should be staffed for the year, Haney said.

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Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City.

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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion