WORTHINGTON — School bus drivers are often the first school employees children meet in the morning and the last ones they see on the way home, but a widespread bus driver shortage is affecting schools nationwide, including those in southwest Minnesota.

“I could probably have easily half a dozen (more drivers) and still need one more,” said Chris Kielblock, manager at Bud’s Bus Service, which serves District 518 students.

Bud’s has enough drivers to cover its regular routes to and from school, which is its biggest priority, but sometimes there is difficulty in covering drivers for evening activities, such as sports or community education.

“It’s a nationwide thing,” Kielblock said of the shortage. “The difficulty in finding drivers existed even before COVID… it’s been exacerbated by COVID issues.”

For a time, COVID-19 rules meant that extra space was required between students on buses, meaning they could not carry as many students. That requirement has since ended, though federal rules do still require face masks to be worn on school buses.

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Kielblock is not sure why the shortage has gotten so much worse.

“There’s a lot of speculation. It could be multiple reasons,” he said. “I think the pay is decent, for the time that’s required for the job.”

Some people simply get apprehensive about hauling children, or dealing with kids on the bus, but many routes aren’t that long and don’t require spending more than 20 minutes or so with a specific group of kids. The longest route for District 518 takes about an hour and a half, Kielblock said.

“It’s great pay for the amount of time you put into it, and it really is rewarding,” Kielblock said. “A lot of times we’re the first ones they see in the morning with a ‘Good morning!’ and from school our drivers are the last ones they see getting off the bus, with a ‘Good night!’ And you know, the occasional ‘thank you!’ from our students goes a long way.”

Kielblock’s roster of about 30 to 35 drivers is a pretty diverse group, with about half women and half men. Some are from Worthington while others are from out of town. While there are some younger drivers, many are retirees — and classically, that’s the group the industry has depended on, Kielblock said.

That could be part of the reason for the shortage, as it has become more difficult to get the Class B commercial driver’s license necessary to drive a school bus, Kielblock said.

Potential drivers aren’t on their own, though. At Bud’s Bus Service, once a potential school bus driver has passed the knowledge test, a trainer helps them prepare for the skills portion of the test.

The requirements are set to become more stringent starting in February, when federal regulations will require drivers seeking a CDL for the first time to complete entry-level driver training. That training includes theory, lectures, demonstrations and an assessment they must pass with a score of 80% or better; it also includes behind-the-wheel training in operating a vehicle on a range or public road, and demonstrating mastery of basic maneuvers, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“That’ll be another layer of red tape,” Kielblock said.

He encourages anyone interested in driving a school bus to talk to a bus driver themselves, to see what it’s like, or give Bud’s a call at (507) 372-5552.

“It’s more rewarding than what I think people give it the possibility or credit for sometimes,” Kielblock added.

Shortage is widespread

Larger schools like District 518 aren’t the only ones coping with a bus driver shortage.

Asked if his school had been affected by a lack of bus drivers, Fulda Area Schools Superintendent Loy Woelber said “You got that right!”

Woelber would know, as he has been serving as a substitute bus driver not just for Fulda, but also for Lake Benton and Westbrook-Walnut Grove schools.

He sees multiple factors at play in the shortage. Formerly, farmers often drove school buses as they wanted extra work in the winter. Now many farmers already have a second job, often a year-round one. Woelber also believes people do not seem to need the supplemental income from the school bus driving job anymore.

“The shortage is pretty near universal,” said Dave Ackerman, superintendent of Ellsworth Public Schools. “... we’ve not experienced a difficulty, but I think it’s coming.”

Ellsworth has three rural bus routes, and the people who drive them have been in good health, Ackerman said.

He cited the hours as being one of the big issues for potential school bus drivers, along with the increasing difficulty of licensure. A lot of scheduling flexibility is required, as well as a good driving record.

Currently, Fulda Area Schools are also doing all right, primarily because three people were licensed in the last month, Woelber said, but Westbrook-Walnut Grove is still suffering from the driver shortage.

Part of that may be because of the difficulty of the test, he said, which people very rarely pass on the first try due to the very specific requirements of the safety inspection component.

Another issue could be the hours the job requires, as drivers work from 6:30 a.m. to around 8 a.m., but then return around 2:45 p.m. for another two hours.

“You get four hours of work, but in between times, you can’t really hold a regular job,” Woelber said.

People already working at a school, like Woelber, can sometimes make that work as part of the regular school schedule, but other workplaces may not allow it.

“We’re trying to recruit, with word-of-mouth (or) anything we can to try and get drivers,” Ackerman said. “But like a lot of positions in education, there’s not a lot of people knocking down the doors to get those positions.”

He advised anyone interested in driving a school bus to give the district office a call.

Round Lake-Brewster School District had trouble finding school bus drivers last year, and opted to contract with a transportation company for bus drivers, said Superintendent Ray Hassing. The company has its own recruiter, and has been able to find drivers for the school.

“It’s just been an ongoing battle for years, especially for small districts,” Hassing said.

Woelber said he wished prospective drivers were aware of how much nicer modern school buses are than the older models, as everything is automatic, heaters are effective, there are radios so that drivers are never out of touch and in his experience, most of the kids on the bus are little, as it’s rare to see anyone older than 10th grade on the bus.

Woelber recommends that anyone interested in driving a school bus should contact the school or the bus company that the school contracts with and ask to just sit in a bus to see what it’d feel like. Alternately, they could start driving a minibus, which doesn’t require a CDL for some runs.

“If you don’t mind being around young people, it’s a great thing to do, especially when you’re retired, I think,” Woelber said.