By: Avery Hudkins
The effects of COVID-19 are still continuing on as we approach the end of 2021. Due to shortages caused by the pandemic, Jenks Public Schools is scrambling to find qualified bus drivers from left to right. Many Jenks students have experienced fallout from this, including long waits at bus stops or late arrival times to class. This month, the Trojan Torch looked into the situation.
“Schools are not only looking for bus drivers. They’re looking for paraprofessionals, child nutrition workers, teachers, assistants and more,” said Eric Fox, assistant principal of Jenks High School.
Fox explained why he thinks it has been a struggle finding bus drivers.
“Across the nation there are a lot of open employment opportunities,” said Fox. “A lot of this has to do with people who got out of the workforce during the pandemic and are being reluctant to go back.”
Why is hiring bus drivers a challenge? Being a bus driver is not easy. According to Fox, driving requires to run at least two or three routes, all the way from intermediate to high school. You have anywhere from 40 to 50 kids on each route.
Additionally, it’s difficult to become a bus driver in the first place. In order to drive a bus, you need a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), which requires you to pass both a written and driving test, and to drive for a period alongside a trainer.
“It also is really hard to schedule a time to take your CDL process,” Fox said, who states that the training process is much more difficult than getting a standard driver’s license.
In response to this issue, the school district started training on site, and is trying to help make testing easier. This helps shorten the time frame it would normally take to attain your CDL, but it is still a lengthy process nonetheless.
Charley Fowler, a current bus driver here at Jenks, drives a bus route for kids with special needs, believes that there is another reason Jenks is having difficulty hiring bus drivers.
“The biggest problem at Jenks is low pay,” Fowler said. “In the past two years we have only received a 1.9 percent raise. “About ninety percent of the drivers left for higher paying driving jobs.”
Fowler, who claims that most of the drivers left for the Bixby School District, pays their drivers over two dollars an hour more than Jenks.
“I have personally been recruited to another school and was offered a $2.50 hour raise,” said Fowler. “I turned them down because I like the people I work with and the students at Jenks.”
Still, Fowler believes there is a solution to the problem.
“What we need is for the community and school board to step up and pay us what we are worth,” Fowler says.
Benetta, another bus driver here for over 15 years and the 2015 Vision of Excellence Award recipient, has gotten the joy of adding the kids she drove over two years ago to her new route.
“The benefit is I already know the children from when they used to ride my bus when they were in the second grade,” said Benetta. “Then they added the third graders. I was already picking up their brothers and sisters who are fifth and sixth graders and the next route with K-2 graders. The advantage is I get to drive the whole family up.”
Benetta now drives three routes and loves it because she has driven most of these kids around all of their life. Some of the kids siblings too had Benetta as a bus driver and now some of them are in college. Benetta emphasizes how important it is to be friendly to the kids riding her buses. She always says good morning to her kids with a smile on her face every single day, because you never know what someone is going through. “We are one of the first people kids encounter in the morning,” said Benetta.
When asked about the bus driver shortage our community is facing, Benetta had this to say:
“Many younger drivers are looking for higher salaries for being a bus driver. The demand for CDL drivers is paying higher salaries in other companies and some schools,” Benetta said.
As the district works to resolve the issue, students are dealing with the results of a bus driver shortage.
“We get emails almost every day about bus routes being late,” said Fox. “Kids get to school late or wait a long time after school to get home.”
Overall our community is dealing with this issue day in and day out.
“It affects all high school students whether you ride a bus or not. It can affect your first hour classes starting on time, being able to go on field trips, or when your team or group has a competition,” Fox said.
Teachers here at Jenks have stepped up to the plate and have helped with this problem one way or another. On November 16th, the Orchestra was supposed to go to a state contest and the Transportation Department did not have any bus drivers. Danielle Frost and Mandy Nightingale saved the day by filling in this role. Without them driving the bus, the Orchestra would not have been able to go to the state contest.
“There are a lot of implications and moving parts with this. I know the district is trying to do everything it can to put the least effect on students as possible,” Fox said. “The district is trying to minimize that as much as possible. We are bringing in just about anybody that has a bus driving license to help with this issue.”
If you have a CDL and are willing to help drive bus routes for Jenks Public Schools please don’t hesitate to reach out to Eric Fox, David Beiler, or the Transportation Director of Jenks Mollie Mills. Anything seriously helps during this shortage of bus drivers.
The district hopes to resolve this issue soon enough.