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How does the school bus driver shortage affect students? We took a ride along to school to find out.

“Let’s get these wheels rolling,” says Amber Shelhorn. It’s early on Monday morning and bus #430 is pulling out, on route to pick up kids and drop them off at Riverdahl Elementary. Shelhorn is behind the wheel, even though -- before this year -- she wasn’t typically a bus driver.

She’s a supervisor in the transportation department -- her day job is helping kids who miss their bus and fielding calls from parents. Because of the nationwide school bus driver shortage, Shelhorn, administrators and even mechanics are driving every morning before they start their other jobs.

How many more drivers would it take for Shelhorn and her colleagues to feel like they have enough every day? “20,” she says without skipping a beat. “And that would just, like, to be able to breathe.”

Today, around 20 drivers called in sick -- a few with COVID. Sometimes upwards of 40 people call off. That makes it impossible to cover every bus route. The district tries to cycle through which routes go uncovered, so it’s not the same every day.

Early in the year, 1,400 students would be without a ride at some point in the school week. Shelhorn says it’s getting better, but on this day, there were still 22 routes where students had to find their own ride. This month, her route has only been left uncovered once. Fortunately, her route is an easy one. Only about a dozen elementary school kids, mostly half-asleep still. Other buses are much more packed with COVID rules relaxed.

But the shortage affects kids in other ways too. But before we get to that, bus dispatch has some news from the transportation center:

“Were there injuries with the other vehicle?” asks a voice coming from a small radio sitting next to Shelhorn. They’re talking to another driver on a different route. Shelhorn looks over and says, “Oh, we got an accident, see?” turning up the volume on the receiver to hear the details.

There’s been an accident with one of the buses. Everyone appears to be fine. She says this is pretty common with new drivers and narrow streets. Sometimes the side of a car gets scraped with school bus yellow paint.

“The other vehicle driver was injured?” asks dispatch. The other driver says no. Now the dispatcher tries to coordinate what to do with kids who are supposed to be picked up by that bus. “Please send those two children to her bus and send her on her way,” says dispatch. Shelhorn glances to the receiver and says “So, that was our fault there.”

Because of that accident, students on that route are going to be 25 minutes late for school.

“So, now those kids are standing there. Now imagine if we're having school and it's wintertime or even if it was raining right now,” says Shelhorn.

Back to how the shortage impacts students: Shelhorn’s day job includes picking up students and taking them to school in situations like this. But because she’s driving a bus and there’s nobody to supervise, those kids are late for school.

Her route, on the other hand, is running smoothly. She’s picking up the first kids now, parents are hugging their kids and seeing them off to school.

“Good morning!” she exclaims as kids hop on. “Where’s your mask? Good morning! You don’t have masks either?” she says, handing out masks from a box on the dash. “And where are you getting these cool-looking face shields?” she asks a group of kids with superhero-themed plastic face shields hanging over their heads.

On top of the travel logistics aspect of bus driving, Shelhorn also understands that her job is about the kids too. She knows what she says to them matters and tries to be a positive presence.

“We don't know what their home life is like,” she says. “We don't know if there’s love, food, stability, structure. We don't know. They don't like hearing it, but it's the truth because kids are hungry, they are abused.”

She keeps that spirit while all while maintaining some semblance of order in her bus. Only once on the trip, does she have to take charge.

“What's the problem in the back of my bus?” she yells back, glaring through the rear-view. “I don’t care!” says a small voice from the back row. Shelhorn calls back again “I'm writing you up, we'll see what you think about that.” The small student cries out one more “I don’t care!” as Shelhorn looks and shrugs her shoulders, “Must have had a rough weekend.”

A few minutes later, around 7:10, we pull into Riverdahl Elementary. Shelhorn parks the bus, and then makes her way to the back row to chat with that student. She hears what’s been bothering him, talks him down and relinquishes the write-up.

“He’s upset because his brother keeps saying he’s not his brother!” says Shelhorn.

Finally, it’s time to head into the school. Shelhorn opens the door and the kids and their bright jackets and Spider-Man backpacks file out.

“I'll see you tomorrow morning. Have a good day bye guys,” she says. “And don’t push her!”

The district is still trying to attract new drivers. Shelhorn says “It’s not a bad job” with the hours off during the day and new bonuses and benefits put in because of the shortage.

In the meantime, they’re waiting to exhale, as they try to make the wheels on the bus go round and round for as many students as possible.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.