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Lack Of Bus Drivers Is Hampering The Start Of The School Year

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Now, imagine your school district telling you they'll pay you to drive your kids to school because they don't have enough bus drivers to cover your neighborhood. That is exactly what's happening in Minneapolis, which is one of the many cities struggling to find enough school bus drivers to begin the school year. Elizabeth Shockman of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN, BYLINE: Kaori Yamada is excited about sending her kindergartner, sixth and eighth grade students off on the bus to new schools in Minneapolis this fall. But last week, she got a message from her district that it didn't have enough bus drivers. It asked if she would be able to drive the children to school herself.

KAORI YAMADA: I'm not entirely sure what happens on September 10 of getting three children to two schools with the different bell times. I don't know. I'll be a full-time mom Uber again.

SHOCKMAN: Yamada and her husband both work full-time, but she's hoping they might be able to work out a carpool agreement with their neighbors. And she'll probably have to lean into working strange hours - after school drop off and after her kids are in bed.

It's not just happening in Minneapolis. In Grand Forks, N.D., regular bus service has been suspended indefinitely, and parents are being asked to bring their children to school. And in Pittsburgh, Pa., the district is short more than 400 drivers, leaving nearly half of their students without a bus ride to school. Minneapolis public school officials say they have about 1/3 fewer drivers than they need.

LISA BECK: The shortage of drivers nationally, not just here in Minneapolis, has really been pretty strong and consistent over the last five years. What COVID has brought to the table is - it has just compounded it.

SHOCKMAN: That's Minneapolis Public Schools' executive director of public transportation, Lisa Beck, who says the district has been at every job fair possible. Now it's offering a $3,000 hiring bonus, raising drivers' wages from $20 an hour and paying applicants to train to get their commercial license. Still, last week it had to message families, asking them to drive their own kids to school and offering to reimburse them for mileage.

Out in the Minneapolis district lot, long, yellow buses are parked in rows behind chain link fences. Transportation manager Steve Crenshaw is sitting in a bus and says this year, he'll have to spend more time there to pick up kids himself.

STEVE CRENSHAW: Usually I'm the last person to go out because you need a manager on the street. Now we have so few drivers, but we don't really have any standbys anymore.

SHOCKMAN: Even with Crenshaw behind the wheel this year, there won't be enough drivers to safely spread kids out on bus rides. Students will be packed three-to-a-seat with masks and open windows and ceiling hatches, even during the cold Minnesota winter months.

Crenshaw remembers last year, when schools were closed and some Minneapolis grocery stores were burned down or boarded up during the unrest following the murder of George Floyd. He and his crew still came to work to deliver food and computers to students who needed them. It's stressful work with long hours and constant exposure to unvaccinated children. And it's happening in a competitive job market where Lyft, Uber, Amazon and other transportation companies are also offering incentives to try to attract drivers.

CRENSHAW: The wages should go up. Drivers in this district are some of the lower-classified people, even though, to me, they're the first person a child sees. They are actually, to me, the front line of who we are and what we're all about.

SHOCKMAN: Still, the countdown for students to return to classrooms continues. Driving your own kids to school may be an option for some parents, but it won't work for everyone. And the driver shortages are adding yet another layer of uncertainty and stress for students and families as they start another pandemic-disrupted school year.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Shockman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MY DAD VS. YOURS' "NO FARM NO FOOD NO FUTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.