ROCHELLE — Five years ago, the Rochelle school bus garage ran 25 bus routes and had five substitute drivers.
This school year, it has 20 routes and zero substitutes. Over the years with drivers retiring or moving on and nobody to fill their positions, routes have had to be combined, Transportation Director Sherri Smith said. Other districts around the state and country have been combating a bus driver shortage recently.
"It's always been hard to find drivers,” Smith said. “I feel like every year it's gotten worse. It used to be that a lot of young moms would come in when their kids were in school and drive because they could be off when their kids were off. I'm not seeing that now. Over the last few years it's definitely gotten worse and COVID-19 hasn't helped."
Right now, Smith would like to hire three or four substitute drivers. Currently, when a substitute is needed, she or the garage’s mechanic steps in and drives.
There’s a chance that those prospective substitutes would fall into a regular bus route when current drivers retire or move on. The bus garage has drivers that are ready for retirement. Smith said she’s nervous about being able to fill those positions when that happens.
“There's several that could retire anytime,” Smith said. “There's some that have mentioned it. The need is definitely out there. It's a great job for a stay-at-home mom or dad or even a retired person or grandparent that wants a part-time job. You're able to bring your kids on the bus with you. You're off when the kids are off. You have summers off. There's a lot of benefits."
Because of the combined routes, the buses are a lot fuller and closer to capacity than in recent years. Luckily, many of Smith’s drivers are veterans that have been around for 20 or more years.
"It's definitely a lot more for everybody,” Smith said. “There's more kids to keep track of. They're really good at that. For me the hard part is not having substitute drivers to fill in when a driver's absent or on a sports trip. Not having enough people. The drivers here are really good about helping out and doing what they need to do. They're taking it in stride."
As far as why applicants aren’t being seen, Smith believes it can be attributed to a multitude of reasons along with the fear of COVID-19. Some people desire a full-time job instead or don’t want the responsibility of having kids on the bus or feel they couldn’t drive the bus.
There is a commercial driver’s license and training involved that makes for a longer time to come on board. Smith did say that Rochelle is one of the higher-paying districts in the area for bus drivers.
Having less drivers along with newer practices like the school’s attendance center model and COVID-19 mitigations have made things “stressful” at the bus garage, Smith said.
“Again, the drivers have been here a long time, they're very good at what they do,” Smith said. “They've adapted really well. They help each other out. They help me out when I ask them to make changes. Take on more of a workload. It works for us because everyone works together. But it hasn't been without some challenges.”
The new attendance center model sees elementary district students attending schools based on their grade, not residence. That has involved more kids using the shuttle system the district utilizes.
Due to COVID-19, drivers and students must wear masks on the bus and kids are seated together in families.
“It's a very real thing when you have 50-70 kids on the bus and everybody is wearing a mask and it's hot,” Smith said. “It's a lot to deal with. But these are veteran drivers and they're really good at their job. I feel like the driver shortage was happening way before COVID-19, but COVID-19 is making it even more difficult overall."
The application to become a bus driver for Rochelle schools can be found at www.rthsd212.org or those interested can call Smith at the bus garage at 815-562-5942.
Rochelle school bus drivers cover the 221 square mile district and put on about 1,500 miles per day just on bus routes. Smith said the need for bus drivers isn’t going away.
“I just wish more people would think of it,” Smith said. “When I've eliminated a route, it's been because I don't have a driver for it. And I'm able to put those kids in with other routes. It's worked so far. I couldn't do any more of that because the buses are so full."