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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

District feels pinch of nationwide bus driver shortage

David Colburn
Posted 8/26/21

REGIONAL- The wheels on the bus go round and round, according to a favorite children’s song, but only if there are drivers to pilot them. ISD 2142 is in relatively good shape in that regard as …

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District feels pinch of nationwide bus driver shortage

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REGIONAL- The wheels on the bus go round and round, according to a favorite children’s song, but only if there are drivers to pilot them. ISD 2142 is in relatively good shape in that regard as the start of school approaches, but transportation director Kay Cornelius still has some spots to fill.
“I am short three bus route drivers at Cherry, and the rest of the district I believe I have covered,” Cornelius said on Tuesday. “I still could use a few van drivers, and lots of subs because we have none.”
With more than 4,000 square miles to cover and additional students coming from outside of the district, Cornelius and transportation assistant Caitlin Swazey have an enormous task making sure students who need district transportation get to their schools and back home on time. Some routes have children riding a bus for up to an hour and 15 minutes, Cornelius said. Bus routes don’t extend beyond district boundaries, but open enrollment students coming from outside the district come to designated pick/up drop-off locations to catch their rides. Students needing special services often need to be shuttled from place to place by van. Fall sports and interscholastic activities add even more complexity to the scheduling task.
Since the onset of the COVID pandemic and the changes forced on schools beginning in March 2020, the job of driving buses has been anything but normal, Cornelius said.
“We were delivering distance learning materials,” she said, a task more involved than it seems. “Sometimes you might have a teacher at North Woods who was a distance-learning teacher for multiple schools in the district, so we had to take distance-learning products and courier them to different areas so that students could get the materials.”
Drivers also transported meals to students, and routes were disrupted last year when many families chose to keep their children at home for distance learning while others sent their kids to school. All of the disruptions created issues planning for this year.
“Normally I’ll look back at last year and I’ll kind of know where my routes are for the number of students,” Cornelius said. “You might have room for 70 kids on a bus, but I could always look back a few months and see that they averaged 45. I don’t have anything to average by.”
And while many students, teachers, and administrators welcomed the summer break, Cornelius said she and Swazey have been working on scheduling for 30 hours a week since April, in part because they also oversee transportation for the Mt. Iron-Buhl district.
“The district actually did summer school this year,” Cornelius said. “The state gave some dollars that districts could spend to help students who needed to catch up or who needed a steady learning environment. We had to route those kids door-to-door.”
Increased open enrollment coupled with student enrollment online means that Cornelius will be tweaking her routes almost up until the first day of classes on Sept. 7.
About driving
Cornelius said that it typically takes four to six weeks for a newly employed driver to complete the training, road testing, physical exam and drug testing to be fully licensed. ISD 2142 works with a Duluth-based trainer, but so do other districts, so sometimes a creative option can be used to assign an individual trainer to a new driver as a mentor who rides along once they reach a certain point in the process.
“The rules and regulations are getting more and more strict for drivers,” Cornelius said. She said new training and clearinghouse requirements coming in February 2022 will make it even harder for people to get licensed. But Cornelius also was quick to say that more requirements for drivers help to ensure student safety.
“When I got my bus driving license, my sister was actually the one who trained me,” Cornelius said. “ I took my license exam on Nov. 4 on glare ice, and she said ‘Don’t screw this up, kid, because you’re driving today. I got in the bus seat as a sub and I never got out. I think we’ve come a long way.”
While some people have reservations about driving something as big as a school bus, Cornelius said it’s more comfortable to do than many realize.
“I would rather get into a big school bus and drive than to get in my four-wheel drive Chevy,” she said. “It has dual tires, it’s heavy, it holds the road nice. We have a very good fleet of newer buses that handle the road very well. I’m very picky about the kind of tires we buy. We’re not as much highway miles as we are turning and stopping and starting and I buy tires to fit that.”
And as for worries about how the kids might behave?
“It’s kind of like a rolling classroom,” Cornelius said. “You get control of it when you first start out. That doesn’t mean you’re mean. It means you’re firm and safe, but you can still be friendly.”
Cornelius said the best thing about driving is the relationships drivers form with their young passengers. “I loved it,” she said. “I still miss my kids. Kids have a great outlook on life, they’re open, they’re honest. You can make or break a kid’s day. Drivers can make a huge difference.”
ISD 2142 is offering a sign-on bonus right now for full route drivers, but not for van drivers or substitutes. Those interested in learning more about driving opportunities should call Cornelius directly at 218-749-8130, ext. 1986.

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