Carpools and church buses: How families are coping with the ongoing bus driver shortage

Three children sit in a minivan.
Kaori Yamada helps her three children get ready to ride to school during the first week in front of their Minneapolis home in September. Yamada chose not to put her children on overcrowded buses and worked out a carpool with three other families.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Monisha Walters had worked it all out. 

Her two kids would take the bus to school in the morning. Then, when classes were over, they would bus from Minneapolis to an after-school care program near their home. 

But that plan ran into a big snag about two weeks before the start of the school year, when Walters received a voicemail and email explaining that her kids might not have a bus on the first day of school. Her children’s school was one of many in the state — and across the country — grappling with the critical shortage of school bus drivers. 

On the first day, the bus driver did show up in the morning — but dropped off her kids about 30 minutes late. And, an hour after the school day ended, Walters was informed that there would be no afternoon bus for her children. 

From then on, Walters drove her kids to school. And for the first week of the year, her children carpooled with other families after the school day ended. 

Thankfully, the church where the care program is housed came up with a more permanent solution. Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church allows program staff members to pick up students from school and bring them to the care center in a church bus. 

“That has been the life-saver for us, all of us,” Walters said. 

Amid the nationwide bus driver shortage, which persists three months into the academic year, parents are coming up with workarounds in how they get their kids to and from school each day. Some have turned to carpools with friends and neighbors, while in other cases, school staffers or after-school care employees have stepped up to fill the void. 

Long waits, disrupted routines

Parents have said it’s common for school buses to not show up at all, and when they do, to show up late — sometimes even hours late. Additionally, many routes have been combined to accommodate a lack of drivers. As a result, many buses that are operating are overcrowded and running long routes, putting unvaccinated children at risk. 

Sonia Núñez-Gibbs is a single mom and educational support professional interpreter and student support worker for Minneapolis Public Schools. Her 7-year-old daughter is supposed to get bused to a park and recreation program in her neighborhood after school. 

However, for the first three to four weeks of the year, there was no after-school bus for her daughter or the five other children from her school attending that program. 

A young girl standing at a bus stop.
Sonia Núñez-Gibbs' daughter waits at her bus stop in Minneapolis. Because of a bus driver shortage, she would wait in the school hallway for up to two hours everyday with either her teacher or her vice principal until her mom could come after work to pick her up. 
Courtesy of Sonia Núñez-Gibbs

So, the second grader would wait in the school hallway for up to two hours everyday with either her teacher or her vice principal until her mom could come after work to pick her up. 

“It feels pretty shaming to show up and realize your kid is the last one there,” Núñez-Gibbs said. 

Because of her job, she isn’t able to leave early every day to pick up her daughter. And bringing her daughter to work isn’t a realistic option, either. 

It took about two weeks and a handful of conversations with everyone from district transportation employees to the school’s vice principal to ensure there would be a bus stop at her daughter’s park and recreation program. Núñez-Gibbs said it appeared the district cut her daughter’s route, and moved everyone onto other routes. 

Her daughter is no longer waiting for hours after school with her teachers, whom Núñez-Gibbs said stayed with her daughter “out of the kindness of their hearts” to help during a challenging situation. The second grader understood the difficulties, though, Núñez-Gibbs said. “She knows I’m never just leaving her there because I forgot about her.” 

For Erin Clotfelter, the transportation complications have been especially troublesome for her two eldest sons, who have autism. As part of their individualized education program, they get door-to-door busing with a smaller group of students and also have an aide on their bus. 

They started off the year with no driver for their Northeast Middle School route in Minneapolis, and once there was a driver, the bus would arrive two hours into the school day. 

The lack of consistent busing proved to be extra challenging for her sons, who thrive on routines because change can be disruptive. 

When there was no driver, Clotfelter committed to driving her sons and her neighbor’s child who took the same bus. Eventually, the district transportation department found a driver with an aide for the route; however, the family vowed to continue driving in hopes of freeing up the driver for another route. Each day, Clotfelter spends about 2 1/2 hours in her car getting all of the kids to and from school. 

“There is no waiting for late buses in the morning, and we don’t have to second-guess how everyone is getting to school each day, which brings the anxiety down quite a bit,” she said. “I’m grateful for the ability to drive and offer up my empty seats to other kids in the neighborhood who need them.” 

How to solve the problem long term?

Many parents predict the driver shortage to be part of the “new normal” that they’ll need to adapt to. Many districts have implemented some quick fixes in the short term, but solutions in the long term won’t come easy.  

In St. Paul, the district staggered start times for seven schools and canceled bus service to four high schools, instead offering students Metro Transit cards. District officials said they expected high school students to rely on public transit through the end of the school year. 

In Minneapolis, the district is offering hiring bonuses — as well as retention bonuses for current drivers — and has added 10  new drivers since the start of the new year. Additionally, the district has a transportation reimbursement program for families that opt out of bus services and provide their own way to school. The district said that more than 1,400 families have submitted requests for reimbursement, though not all have been eligible. 

District officials are continuing to brainstorm ways they can address the driver shortage. 

“We believe there are some systematic changes that need to happen at the state and federal level in order to solve this issue that most districts in the country are facing,” said spokesperson Crystina Lugo-Beach. “However, we are always reviewing different options that would help alleviate the problem. We’ve considered changing walk zones, combining special education and general education buses, and other alternatives, although, no decisions have been made at this time.”

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