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Bus driver shortage affecting Oregon schools

Nationwide and across Oregon, schools are having trouble finding bus drivers. This means changing routes, heavy workloads and frustrated parents. We hear from Craig Beaver, the administrator for transportation for the Beaverton School District, about what his district is facing and what families should keep in mind during an exceptionally hectic start to the school year.

Note: The following transcript was generated by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with school buses. There has been a driver shortage all across the country, including in Oregon. Some districts like Vernonia have had to postpone the start of the school year because of this. Others are getting by only with the help of office staff. Students and parents meanwhile are reporting big waits for buses. Craig Beaver is the administrator for transportation for the Beaverton School District. He joins us now to talk about what the shortage looks like at the state’s third largest district. Craig Beaver, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Craig Beaver: Thank you, Dave. Pleasure to be here.

Miller: Can you give us a sense first for the numbers right now, how many drivers you currently have and how many you actually need?

Beaver: Absolutely. We have 218 routes right now, and I have 23 unfilled routes. So that means I don’t have drivers that are regularly assigned to those. We are covering those routes with what we call spare drivers, they’re floating drivers, and also office staff: routers and dispatchers and supervisors. In the last two years we hired 84 people and lost 70, so we were down 14 people. This year alone though we’ve lost 17 people; we’ve only hired 11, so that’s a net difference of six. So, over the last three years we’ve lost a net of 20 people, so you can see what kind of impact that’s having with us. And then that was before we started back up from COVID.

Miller: So to go back to the way you’re covering the 23 unfilled routes. Among the ways you’re doing it are with spare and floating drivers. Can I think of that as like substitute teachers, except for drivers?

Beaver: Basically. They’re permanent full time employees. They just don’t have an assigned route. Normally those folks are used to cover absenteeism, should people get sick, people have to take personal time off. Normally we have about 260 - 270 drivers. In total this year we’re down to about 230. So, instead of having the flexibility to cover normal absences, we’re having to have those people drive regular routes. So essentially my staff, my dispatchers and routers, and myself and supervisors, we are covering the normal daily attrition we have just due to just normal absences that happen through the course of events.

Miller: So it seems like there’s no slack there. If, say, a couple drivers got sick, you’d really be in trouble.

Beaver: Well, absolutely, and today as an example. We have 25 people that are sick today. So we have, literally, everybody that’s available is driving. And normally we have two dispatchers in our regular ed office and two dispatchers in our special ed office to handle those routes. Today, those [two offices] are going single-person dispatchers each day. We had to pull from there.. We’ve got mechanics driving today which we normally don’t do. So, we’ve kind of reached our max at 25 [absent]; there’s not a whole lot left to get behind the wheel and drive. But I’m very thankful and my folks here do a fantastic job -- the drivers and everybody else -- of doing what it takes to meet the needs of our kids. We have not had to cut back our service. We have not had to rely on parents to get their kids to and from school. We’ve been able to cover every responsibility and every request that schools have given us. And we’re very proud of that.

Miller: It seems like, though, you’ve been doing that with the human resources equivalent of duct tape. I mean even you, the administrator for this whole system, you’ve been driving it seems and mechanics are driving.

Beaver: Yeah.

Miller: It doesn’t seem sustainable, in other words.

Beaver: Not in the long term, it’s not. And that’s why we have a very active hiring program. We’ve had for many years, especially for the last five or six years.. over the last five years we’ve hired 169 people, over the course of five years. Some years we hire as high as 63 people, we’ve hired in one year. So we have a lot of people, but there is a lot of turnover, too. We lost 196 over that same period. The reason for the losses is this is a second or third career for most people. Most of our employees are older folks. They’re older, they’re not young, just starting out. They’ve already completed a career or maybe two. They’re here for us to give back, to work a schedule of schools that have only 175 work days a year and get summers off. So that kind of turnover isn’t unheard of. And it’s not really that strange.

Miller: So it seems like you’re saying that overall you have an older workforce. Did that mean that they were less interested in coming back to work during COVID?

Beaver: Actually quite the contrary. [In] the district we were very fortunate, from the state level on down, that we were able to keep our folks employed, even during the entire shutdown. But my folks were still delivering meals. We were doing various things for the district behind the scenes, helping out in other departments. So there was a willingness for people to come out and do things. Again, the bottom line with our drivers and I imagine drivers across the state is, they’re not here for the money, they’re here for the kids. They genuinely enjoy being around kids and want to come back. So we really haven’t run into that. It is really more than a job to these folks.

Miller: What are the challenges right now in terms of hiring drivers? You and districts all across the state or the country are trying to do this. Maybe that premise answers part of the question; everyone’s trying to do the same thing. But, in terms of what you specifically are encountering, why has it been hard to hire people?

Beaver: Well, it’s a very good point. There has been a growing commercial driver shortage over many years, over the last decade or so. The biggest challenge we have is, because it is a commercial driver, it’s regulated by the Department of Transportation. So there’s mandatory drug testing and things like that, mandatory physicals. But, as a school bus driver, we are one of the [most] heavily regulated positions in the state. So, not only do we have the federal things we have to worry about, we also have the Department of Education requirements to be a school bus driver. So we’re kind of fighting a battle there. We’ve got an extra layer of regulations and training and experiences that we have to do. Some of the other challenges, too, it’s a split schedule: bus drivers by nature, they work in the morning, then they have sort of the middle of the day off and they come back in the afternoon. That’s not the schedule a lot of people want to work. They want to work eight hours straight or something like that. We’re very fortunate here in our district, we guarantee six hours a day and that gets full benefits, medical, dental, vision, a retirement plan. But some districts aren’t able to do that; they’re not as big as us. They may not be able to do six hours, may only be able to do five or four hours. And again, while we have competitive wages, the private market has many companies that pay a lot more than we do. Their benefits aren’t probably as good as ours and their work hours are longer than ours and the pay is much greater. So again, it’s kind of a niche that folks are looking for, from a pay standpoint. And the last thing, obviously, is working with kids. Not everybody is cut out to work with kids -- some of our buses, our elementary buses, may carry 65 or up to 70 elementary kids. So we’re talking kindergartners to fifth graders and that takes a special person to have a bunch of excited Friday afternoon kids after a long week and they’re excited for the weekend. It gets a little noisy back there and you have to have a sense of humor and know how to deal with those kinds of things.

Miller: Yeah, packages don’t yell ..

Beaver: Yeah.

Miller: You just drive quiet packages around.

[Both Laughing]

Miller: So, let’s turn to those kids in those buses. There was a high profile story this week out of Portland Public Schools about an entire bus of students. All the students who rode that particular bus are quarantining now because of one positive case identified among those students. Has that happened in Beaverton yet?

Beaver: No sir, not an entire bus, it has not. As with Portland and many, many other districts, all of our students are required to wear masks, our drivers are required to wear masks whenever they’re around students. We’ve implemented seating charts at the elementary level..

Miller: Are those in place yet? Because Portland Public Schools are supposed to have that in place; they said that they’re working on it.

Beaver: That’s exactly right. We will have them fully in place by the end of the day today [September 17, 2021]. And the only reason why it wasn’t in place in the very beginning was simply, we had a staggered start: we started on Wednesday and kindergarteners didn’t start until Friday and Monday. And secondly, we route for 24,000 kids, everybody that’s eligible. Just because they’re eligible doesn’t mean they ride; we have to see who shows up and we know there’s a percentage of kids that won’t show up. So, while the bus may carry 65 kids, we’re routing for 85 kids. We can’t really do it beforehand, before kids start to show up. And then we had to let everybody get there to see who was going to be [riding] and the kindergarteners there. So we started actively on Tuesday morning and it takes a few days to get in place because you still have some transients with kids who don’t ride the bus the first day or only ride in the morning and it takes a few days to sort that out. One interesting thing that we’re going to do for the secondary is we’re going to implement QR codes, beginning most likely Wednesday or Thursday, where the student will take a picture of the QR, he or she will go on right to a form. It will already have most of the information there. They’re going to put in their student id, whether it’s a morning or afternoon route and the row number they’re sitting in; it will create a permanent record for us to know where a student was. So, if we do have a case, we’re able to look at the student and see immediately who was sitting in front of them, who was sitting behind them, very quickly. We’re really excited to get that started.

Miller: Just briefly, do all school buses in Beaverton have cameras now? This is something I read about in the Portland Public Schools case.

Beaver: Yes, we do. All of our buses have cameras. Some have four, most of them have six, including a forward looking camera out the front window.

Miller: What’s the reason for that?

Beaver: Well, we do it for security. Two fold: Just again, when there’s something that happens, whether it be a disciplinary issue on the bus, a child reports something happening to the school, we have the video to go back and look at it. From a security standpoint, we always know what’s going on. The forward looking camera obviously is very important to us with an accident investigation and things like that. The only problem with the video in COVID, we started doing that and we are using it as a review method to help identify who was sitting next to whom on the bus. It’s very challenging when everybody is wearing a mask, though.

Miller: Or with small students, which seems like it may have been the case in Portland. Craig Beaver, we’re out of time, but thanks very much for joining us today. I appreciate it.

Beaver: Thank you very much, Dave. It’s been my pleasure.

Miller: And good luck hiring more drivers. Craig Beaver, administrator for transportation for the Beaverton School District.

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