Pandemic driving 'urgent need' for bus drivers in Gahanna-Jefferson, Westerville school districts

Marla K. Kuhlman
ThisWeek group
Randy Snyder, Westerville City Schools transportation manager, is shown Feb. 3 at the district's transportation facility. A bus-driver shortage within the district has led to some school buildings canceling in-person classes due to a lack of transportation.

If you like driving a bus, appreciate flexible hours and enjoy the company of children and teens – and have a proper CDL endorsement – the Gahanna-Jefferson and Westerville school districts might have a job for you.

Gahanna-Jefferson is prepared to hire 11 bus drivers, and Westerville would like to hire 15, according to their transportation managers.

The starting pay is about $18 per hour.

Jason Kee, the Gahanna-Jefferson Public School District's transportation supervisor, said the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years each started with 71 drivers, but the district currently has 60.

“Ideally, we’re shooting for 71 drivers,” he said. “That would be perfect. We would be fine with 66.”

Randy Snyder, Westerville City Schools' transportation manager, said the district has 101 bus drivers and 19 van drivers assigned to regular routes. The district also has 11 substitute bus drivers and five substitute van drivers. Last year, it had one more van driver and seven additional substitute drivers.

“If we could hire 15 new drivers, we would be in a good position,” Snyder said. “We would be in a good place and could cover the necessary route coverage.” 

Westerville has had to go fully remote with classes for several days at the secondary level because of a bus-driver shortage.

“For a number of years, nationally, the school-bus industry has had a 20% bus-driver shortage,” Snyder said. “For every 100 routes nationwide, they were short 20 drivers.”

Gahanna-Jefferson hasn’t had to switch to all-remote learning because of a shortage, but said Judy Hengstebeck, communications coordinator, the district has an urgent need for drivers. 

“Although there was a struggle for bus drivers before COVID(-19), the pandemic has affected transportation staffing on two levels,” she said. “Fewer drivers are available because their age puts them into a high-risk population. Bus driving is a perfect job for retirees – and, of course, daily shortages when drivers are quarantining or after a positive test.”

Veteran driving experience

Gahanna-Jefferson bus driver Joyce Barnes, 71, will have 25 years behind the wheel of a bus in May.

The Reynoldsburg resident said she loves the job.

“I like kids,” she said. “That has to be a prerequisite. There’s so much more to bus driving than maneuvering the bus.”

Before becoming a driver, she said, her job was to be a mom.

She started driving a school bus after her children graduated from high school.

“I love all my kids,” Barnes said. “It’s funny to see them grown up now with their own kids.” 

She said driving a bus is a great job, and drivers can make it what they want.

“You can do 2.5 (hours) in the morning and afternoon,” she said. “There are other opportunities. You can do a midday. There are options for trips. You can make it a part-time or full-time job.”

When she started driving the bus, Barnes said, she was worried about doing the same thing every day. 

“But it’s not,” she said. “Every day is different. I get attached to my kids. I try to stay on a particular route so I can follow my kids.”

The Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools started the 2019-20 school year with 71 bus drivers. This photo was taken in 2019 in front of Clark Hall. The district currently has 60 drivers, with openings for 11 more.

Training in something new

Barnes said the training program is excellent. 

“The trainers take you out,” she said. “They don’t take you for your test until you’re ready. They walk you through the whole thing.”

Barnes said when she first was directed to drive a bus in reverse, her response was “nuh-uh.”

“I was afraid I would hit something,” she said. “I encourage anyone, even if you want a part-time job, it’s great.” 

Barnes said she has excellent health and many precautions are in place because of the coronavirus.

“We have a chemical spray that’s supposed to kill 100% (of germs). None of my children have a problem wearing masks,” she said. “We have to wear masks. I don’t worry about it.”

Barnes said a best friend had driven a school a bus and that’s what gave her the idea to start. 

“The idea kept sticking in my head,” she said. “I saw an ad. I didn’t think I could, and my friend said I could.”

Barnes said camaraderie among the drivers is great.

“Everybody volunteers to help,” she said. “Bus drivers take care of each other, not just management. Best job ever”

Westerville driver Larry Thomas, 55, said you can’t beat the hours for the job he has held four years.

He said bus drivers get the summers off, and employees can stretch their paychecks across the entire year.

“I retired and decided to do this,” he said. “It has gotten better every year. It’s probably the best job I’ve ever done.”

The New Albany resident worked as a firefighter for more than 30 years. 

“On my son’s first day of kindergarten, the bus driver pulled up and he was a retired firefighter,” Thomas said. “I thought it was a good gig. You can’t beat the hours, but you have to like kids.”

He said the job allows him to meet a lot of people, and it’s always something different every day.

Virtue of patience

“The kids are the best part of the day – and (sometimes) the worst,” Thomas said. “If you come into it (thinking) you’re not going to change and you’re going to change the kids, you’re not going to succeed.”

Thomas said he realized he was going to have to change. 

“Kids can try your patience,” he said.  

Thomas said field trips, including trips to sporting events, are great because they are chaperoned.

“It’s good pay,” he said. “You get paid from the time you leave until you get back.”

He said he wasn’t scared of the coronavirus and has maintained his health.

“I felt if I do everything I’m supposed to do, I’m protecting myself,” Thomas said. “Every time we drop kids off, we completely sanitize the whole bus.”

Routes like classrooms

Snyder said he has worked with Westerville since 2002. 

“I’m proud of the team I work with – Larry and many others,” he said. “I have students in Westerville. This is part of me. I graduated from Westerville North in 1997.”

Snyder refers to the district’s regular 101 bus routes as being like classrooms.

“When we start splitting up routes, you have so many times of instruction per day,” he said. “When there’s a shortage of teachers, they fill in for each other. Drivers cover for each other. Larry is one we go to if we need (another run) to be covered. Many are here every day driving their own routes and others to make it happen.”

He said three routes aren't officially assigned. 

Snyder said he sees a pair of reasons for the shortage.

“It’s a skilled position,” he said. “You have to have a CDL (commercial driver’s license).” 

Snyder said people who drove in the 1970s and 1980s were driving a bus part time for a second income. 

“School bus drivers in this area have competitive insurance benefits,” he said. “You work 25 to 30 hours a week, and it’s not a bad hourly rate. It’s not necessarily the same part-time job that the same section of society did – it doesn’t fit the mold it did years ago.”

He said the district has amazing kids and wonderful routes, but some people might not have the patience for it. 

“Finally, the concern is for safety,” he said. “It’s a very important responsibility to be in the driver seat of a school bus.”

Westerville offers paid training and covers all fees for an individual to get a CDL, so there's no out-of-pocket costs for licensing. 

Once hired, the drivers begin with a salary of $18 to $19 or more per hour, Snyder said.

After signing on with Westerville, if a driver works for the district at least 90 days, he or she can get a $250 signing bonus if already holding a CDL, he said. A $100 signing bonus is offered if the district has to train a driver to obtain the CDL.

Interested applicants should go to the transportation recruiting page to learn more at wcsoh.org/drive or by calling 614-797-4850.

Coronavirus fallout

Kee said Gahanna-Jefferson has had fewer drivers available for daily routes, normally totaling 63, due to some of the drivers being in the high-risk population and per a doctor's orders are not able to drive during the pandemic. 

“We have more daily shortages because more drivers are being quarantined because of a family member or other potential exposure, testing, as well as those going out sick with actual COVID,” he said. “And our absences are lasting longer. Typically during the flu season, we see two to four days a driver is absent with the flu, less if it is sinuses. With COVID, the quarantine requirement is 10 days or longer so the drivers are not available for longer periods of time.”

Kee said the pandemic also is making it more difficult because the district isn’t able to recruit new drivers at the same level. 

“Typically, we do in-person events and interviews, and this year we are not able to do that,” he said. “We have also received significantly less applications this year than we would in a normal year.”

He said the pay for a driver starts at $18 an hour.

Training is paid, and Gahanna-Jefferson covers the costs to get the CDL; however, the district doesn’t cover the costs to get the permit.

Anyone who’s interested should pick up an application at the bus compound, 782 Science Blvd., during business hours or online at gahannaschools.org by clicking on the human-resources tab under the departments dropdown or by calling 614-751-7581.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla