Many Rogers County school districts say school bus driver shortages are nothing new for them.
They said the bus driver shortage impacted them before COVID took its toll, causing the hardship districts are facing statewide.
"We've always, always have problems finding bus drivers. We're always pulling coaches and principals into drive. I'm driving a route today. For us it's business as usual," said Inola Superintendent TJ Helling. "We added one or two during the pandemic but really it’s always been an issue. It's hard to find someone wanting to work one hour in the morning and one hour in the middle of the afternoon. There's always been a low response rate."
Chelsea Public School Superintendent Rich McSpadden said, "Right now we're covered, but with no backups. We're okay, but there's not a lot of wiggle room…It's pretty normal for us"
In Justus-Tiawah, Superintendent Ed Crum said the same thing, they're experiencing a shortage but it's nothing new. The struggle for him is that three teachers are seeking certification and having a hard time getting in to do so.
School districts statewide always struggle to hire bus drivers, but officials say the pandemic — coupled with a two-month wait to obtain the necessary commercial driver's license — is only exacerbating the issue.
“We are hearing that the bus driver shortage is getting worse in the time of the COVID pandemic,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the state School Boards Association. “Many of our bus drivers are in the high-risk categories. A lot of them are retired teachers, administrators and support employees who have come back to drive a bus.”
Hime said districts are staggering or duplicating routes so drivers can handle multiple ones. Most schools have even considered changing school start times to allow for one driver to tackle multiple routes. Some districts — like Mustang — offer benefits to bus drivers.
“The pandemic has just made it harder for us,” said Tammy Bowler, president of the Oklahoma Association for Pupil Transportation.
Bowler, who also serves as the director of transportation for Colbert schools, said it’s not possible to track bus driver vacancies statewide, or how many are still needed to start the school year.
Anecdotally, she said there’s been a decline in the number of people willing to drive this year.
“I think we’re going to see a shortage until at least we start the school year and see how this year’s going,” Bowler said. “We’re going to have fewer students riding the buses, (but) that doesn’t’ necessarily mean the routes are going to get shorter or fewer.”
More districts are trying to train new drivers, but Bowler said a two-month wait to get commercial driver's license permits at the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety is only exacerbating district woes.
Most years, anyone can walk into a DPS office and get tested within an hour or two, she said. Not any more.
“When you put on table that you’ve lost drivers due to the fear factor of the pandemic, and that you can’t even get a driver with the permit in their hand to start driving, then here we go, we’re just building up that bottleneck again,” Bowler said.
Sarah Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said a 60-day backlog exists to obtain a commercial driver's license permit.
She said the pandemic is only part of the reason for the delay. The recent rollout of the federally-compliant Real ID driver's licensing program is contributing to the bottleneck.
Stewart said the agency closed for nearly a month in April because of COVID-19, but the agency’s systems may be down at times because of Real ID technology implementation or training.
She said the agency has waived the usual 14-day waiting period required between obtaining a permit and license. Now, applicants can obtain both the same day.
“It’s supply and demand,” Stewart said. “We’re trying to get through them as quickly as we can.”
Janelle Stecklein, CNHI state reporter, contributed to this story.