Hi, Shane: Vigo County School Corp.bus driver Shane Mullenix greets Rio Grande Elementary student Allison Fentz as she climbs aboard after school on Wednesday. Staff photo by Joseph C. Garza
Hi, Shane: Vigo County School Corp.bus driver Shane Mullenix greets Rio Grande Elementary student Allison Fentz as she climbs aboard after school on Wednesday. Staff photo by Joseph C. Garza
Shane Mullenix enjoys his job as a Vigo County School Corp. bus driver, something he's done for more than nine years.

Retired from the military, the 44-year-old drives routes serving Otter Creek Middle School and Rio Grande Elementary; in addition, he also helps train new bus drivers.

Mullenix likes the hours, and he especially enjoys interacting with students.

"I laugh every day with these kids, especially the little ones," who like to tell him their stories and give him a high five or fist bump. They joke back and forth.

Sometimes, students may not be having the best of days, and they look up to him enough they want to share what's wrong and maybe ask for advice. "To me, I take that pretty seriously. I think it's pretty cool that you build these relationships with these students," Mullenix said.

But the job also has its challenges — the biggest right now being a bus driver shortage.

"We don't have enough drivers, so you have several drivers working double routes ... and what makes that difficult is it's automatically going to put you behind," Mullenix said.

That can make students late for their morning routines at school and may cause parents to be late for work.

Recently, he picked up not only middle school kids on his regular route but high school students from another route as well. Mullenix may learn of the change too late to contact parents. "I understand the frustration, but we aren't late because we want to be late," he said.

He also believes there's a safety aspect as well when bus drivers are on roads they are not used to, and in the morning, it may be dark with rain or other weather factors.

A state and nationwide problem

The school bus driver shortage is having an impact locally, statewide and nationally.

• In early September, the Vigo County School Corp. notified families that the bus driver shortage meant that students at times might face late pick-ups in the morning and drop-offs in the afternoon.
• In Pike Township schools in the Indianapolis area, the district moved to e-learning for two days in late September and one day in mid-October because it didn't have enough bus drivers to transport children.
• Carmel Clay schools responded by improving bus driver pay; instituting a three-tiered system in which school start times were altered; and it instituted "No-Bus Zones" for students who live within a one-mile radius of a Carmel Clay school building.
• Recently, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker activated members of the National Guard to drive school buses throughout the state as needed.

In a national survey of public school transportation directors, 51% of respondents described their driver shortage as "severe" or "desperate." About three-quarters of those responding also indicated the shortage is getting "much worse" or "a little worse."

The joint survey, with results released in August, was done by the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) and the National School Transportation Association (NSTA).

The survey also found 91% of respondents said they have altered service to elementary schools, 90% have altered service to middle schools, and 83% have altered service to high schools as a result of those shortages.

In a question that allowed for multiple answers, 50% of respondents said the rate of pay is a major factor affecting their ability to recruit and retain drivers, 45% cited the length of time to secure a Commercial Driver's License, 38% the availability of benefits and 38% the hours available to work.

“As school districts across the country return to in-person learning and COVID continues to have an impact on education in general and school transportation scheduling and logistics in particular, the shortage of school bus drivers has become conspicuous," said NAPT Executive Director Mike Martin, in a news release. “But let’s be clear – this is not a new problem. Nor is it easy to solve.”

Ron Chew, president of the Indiana State School Bus Drivers Association, has been a school bus driver for 42 years in South Henry School Corp. in east-central Indiana.

A bus driver shortage existed before COVID, but once the pandemic hit, it escalated problems, Chew said. People have been concerned about COVID and as a result, the shortage "is at a higher level now than what it was."

Many drivers are retired from other jobs, and older. "A lot of those people are concerned about their health," he said. After the pandemic hit, they didn't come back.

Also, the economy is "pretty good" as far as people being able to find other jobs.

Typically, those who become drivers don't do it solely for the pay and benefits. "It has to be someone who really wants to do it. You don't just get behind the wheel. You're hauling very precious cargo, and you must deal with situations both on and off the bus," Chew said. "You have to be constantly alert. It's not something everyone can do."

Chew added, "It takes a special person to do this; it's not a job for everyone."

Drivers need a CDL license with a special endorsement to be a school bus driver; they have to take a skills test and pass a physical. The training also includes riding with a driver and driving while accompanied by a current driver.

"There is a very severe shortage nationwide," Chew said. "It's very critical now." Some districts are increasing walking distances to school, while others are changing their start times.

At some schools, drivers have double and triple routes. There also have been financial incentives to lure in more drivers. "That's what a lot of schools have done to try to eliminate this problem," said Chew, who is 68.

While his district does not pay bus drivers benefits, some districts do, he said. "There are school corporations that have some very good benefits for drivers," he said.

The Indiana School Boards Association is concerned about staffing shortages facing school corporations across Indiana, not only bus drivers but substitute teachers and other positions. The teacher shortage continues as well.

"Many factors are exacerbating the labor shortages, including the pandemic, economic issues, generous unemployment compensation from the federal government that just ended last month, expanding staffs with a smaller labor pool to recruit from, and staff turnovers," said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association.

Why become a driver?

Mullenix, the Vigo County bus driver and trainer, hears two major reasons contributing to the shortage.

Some people talk about the limited hours; a driver who works four hours — two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon — will make about $100 per day in VCSC. While that "worked out perfect" for Mullenix, some need more hours and more money.

Mullenix said drivers can supplement their income by offering to drive for field trips or extracurricular activities including athletics, bands or clubs.

Another reason he hears is that some are concerned about the responsibilities associated with driving young people to and from school. "Yes, it's a huge responsibility that needs to be taken serious, obviously," he said.

But what they may not understand, Mullenix said, is that "we provide training locally. We have a team of trainers, and we are going to take a new driver step by step through the training process up until and beyond when they pass their CDL. We won't let anyone drive a school bus ... until they are comfortable and we are comfortable with them doing it," Mullenix said.

He doesn't believe COVID has been a major factor in the current shortage, although it has had an impact.

In his case, being a bus driver "is a great retirement job." Beyond that, "It's the enjoyment I get out of hanging with kids and communicating with them that makes it all worth it for me," Mullenix said.

The district transports about 7,000 students per day.

Meanwhile, Clay Community Schools also is dealing with a bus driver shortage. "Although there are some obstacles to overcome, CCS has been able to man its routes this year," said Jesse Trunnell, transportation director.

COVID-19 concerns caused some drivers to resign or retire, he said. A few drivers were already planning to retire, and some have chosen different occupations.

The district has responded in several ways, including route consolidations. Also, it offers paid training to achieve necessary licensing, and incentives have been offered for new drivers and for referrals.

A routing software upgrade is underway, which will help streamline bus routing. The upgrade comes with GPS tablets installed in each bus for turn-by-turn direction for drivers, and, more importantly, for sub drivers who are unfamiliar with routes and may need assistance. The software upgrade comes with a parent app which will notify parents if a bus is running late and will provide the expected time of arrival for them.

To recruit and keep drivers, CCS recently approved a 10% raise for all bus drivers.

Next year, the majority of CCS buses will have air conditioning, camera upgrades and routing software upgrades.
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