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How school bus driver shortages and frequent bus route cancellations impacted students and their families

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Peter Medlin
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A Rockford Public Schools bus drives through the city picking up students late in 2021.

Ten minutes down the road on her way to work, Joni Carter gets a message on her phone. Her 14-year-old daughter’s school bus was canceled…again. Now, she has to double back to her Yorkville home, pick up her daughter and take her to school herself.

“Then there were those days where you didn't necessarily get that notice," she said. "Not through their fault but hey, maybe I was busy and I missed it, and here's my kid walking back to the house and I’ve driven off already.”

The Yorkville School District canceled her daughter’s route regularly at the beginning of the year. And it kept up intermittently throughout the year. To prepare for next year, Carter’s already changed her work schedule so she can drive her daughter to school.

Carter’s situation was far from unique. Last year, districts across the country faced a shortage of school bus drivers. It led to canceled bus routes and countless parents scrambling to find their kids a ride to school. Some, like Carter, were working, and many just didn’t have access to transportation to get their kids to school.

Some school districts tried to ease the pressure on parents. They provided alternative transportation options or -- as DeKalb did -- even reimbursed parents for driving their kids to class if there were cancelations. Carter said she didn’t hear about anything like that in Yorkville.

Like many school districts, Rockford Public Schools had never canceled a bus route before last year. That’s according to district transportation director Michael Slife.

But as the school year began, they didn’t have nearly enough drivers.

“We started off the school year with 12 cancellations, I believe, every day," he said.

In September alone, RPS canceled 226 bus routes. Early on, that meant around 1,400 students would be left without a ride in a given week.

Rockford didn’t have a reimbursement program for parents. But the district poured resources into filling driver vacancies. They started offering $3,000 signing bonuses and weekly attendance incentives to recruit potential new drivers.

In the meantime, every morning was hectic. Substitute drivers would take a few routes. Maintenance staff and administrators had to drive so they could keep their heads above water.

It’s also still a pandemic and they had drivers get sick. Slife said they had between 15 and 20 people call in sick every day. Sometimes upwards of 40 drivers were out.

This caused unplanned route cancellations ON TOP of the ones the district anticipated. Last year, RPS canceled 126 routes beyond those they’d planned for.

Slife says last-minute call-offs and cancellations made life more confusing for the drivers who showed up.

“Because with all the changes and all the cancellations, he said, "there were new people on routes every day. New drivers driving routes with students they didn't know on route streets they didn't know, which caused extra delays."

Even though Rockford hired more drivers and canceled fewer routes as the school year went on, the overall numbers are significant. In total, 754 routes were cut during the 2021-22 school year.

Some students and some schools were hit harder than others. Slife says that was by design. He says they tried to drop fewer routes at schools with historically lower attendance rates.

Every route includes students from multiple schools. Slife says the district also factored in grade levels when deciding which routes to cut.

“They prioritized the attendance at the elementary level," said Slife.

Data obtained by WNIJ show that cancellations impacted high schools the most.

Over 300 rides were canceled for Guilford High School and Jefferson High School students -- more than any other RPS school. Guilford and Jefferson’s attendance rates are around the district’s average.

For the most part, Rockford elementary schools with the lowest attendance were scratched the least. At the middle school level, the numbers are more complicated. West and Flinn middle school students have much lower attendance rates than the district average. But each school had bus rides canceled over 100 times last year.

Even though bus driver shortages were common across America last year, not every district had quite as many cancellations. The DeKalb School District & East Aurora District 131 each reported around 30 axed routes last year.

Michael Slife at RPS says they still have about 30 driver openings.

“I'm feeling better than last year," he said, "but I don't feel like we're out of the woods, so to speak. We had quite a few retirees at the end of the year, and some people that said they weren't coming back.”

They still have some time to hire before the next year starts. But at this point, they don’t know if the cancellations will have to continue into the next school year.

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