Zamora Payton has been a school bus driver with the Marysville Joint Unified School District for 18 years and “enjoys the heck out of it.”
“I work mostly with students with special needs, they really tug on your heart strings sometimes, it's very rewarding,” Payton said.
However, one of the current challenges is that they are understaffed.
MJUSD Superintendent Gary Cena said a statewide bus driver shortage has existed for years but has been made worse by the pandemic.
Some of the transportation-related challenges the district is facing include MJUSD lost a number of bus drivers to retirement this past year; some bus drivers are not able to return to work until September; there is an increased number of legally-mandated students that must be transported; and while the district is offering free bus driver trainings, participating in job fairs and providing incentives to retain and attract bus drivers, there are not enough trainees to replace the lost drivers or the increase in need for additional drivers.
“As a school district, the purpose of every effort is to facilitate and enhance the relationship between a student and their classroom teacher. Every employee and every function throughout the district is an extension contributing to this connection,” Cena said. “For many students, their bus driver is the first adult they interact with when they leave home each day and the last adult they see before returning home. The MJUSD bus drivers develop trusting long lasting relationships with students under their care. It takes a special effort and mindset to become a bus driver. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of bus drivers statewide.”
MJUSD will be hosting free bus driver training starting July 26.
Andy Willis, bus driver trainer for the district, said the training involves a classroom portion; trainees will get a commercial driver's permit; behind-the-wheel training; background checks; and written test and drive test with the California Highway Patrol.
Cena said becoming a driver requires completion of a 20-hour bus driver training, CPR and first aid certification along with logging 20 training hours behind the wheel of a bus before obtaining bus driver certification.
He said candidates are required to pass the background check, be 18 years old or over and have a basic driver's license.
It's also asked that trainees bring a copy of their driving record from the Department of Motor Vehicles to the training, everything else is provided by the district, Willis said.
The next training is scheduled to take place from July 26 through Aug. 5.
“The training can be a little much at first but it's absolutely worth it,” Willis said. “It's a very rewarding career.”
Willis said, before the driver shortage, they would conduct the trainings about twice a year but now they do it every four to six weeks.
“We're not getting as much interest as we have in the past,” Willis said.
He said he has been a school bus driver for about 21 years.
“I tell new drivers that it's never boring and that's the truth from day to day,” Willis said. “It can be an amazing career working with kids … We have quite a bit of impact (on children) and it's almost like they become your own kids.”
Payton said they have benefits like sick leave, vacation pay and CalPERS.
While the average route, including both morning and afternoon, is on average a six-hour shift, Payton said, there are opportunities to work eight hours a day.
She said people can sign up for additional tasks, such as washing a bus or cleaning the break room, on their “extra work list.”
“When they get off the bus, they smile and hand you a piece of paper – they drew you a picture in class. You save all these things,” Payton said. “It’s very rewarding.”
Cena said public health guidance for busses being implemented for the 2021-22 school year will include all students and staff wear masks on the bus; at a minimum two windows be open for ventilation; and students are to be distanced as much as practicable.
As a result, seating capacity has been increased to full capacity, he said.
“MJUSD has been, and continues, working on all phases, including capacity, alternative scheduling, legal mandates, route analysis, and bus driver recruitment,” Cena said “This issue is receiving much energy and attention and incrementally is looking to improve. However, the reality is that general education bus routes will be limited due to lack of drivers, especially at the beginning of the school year. The current bus driver shortage means limited transportation services will be prioritized beginning with legally mandated routes followed by routes based on length of distance, safety concerns, and volume of students impacted. The number of available routes is changing each day.”
Those interested in participating in the school bus driver training at MJUSD can call Willis at 740-6496.
Yuba City Unified School District
Sonia Lasyone, transportation director at Yuba City Unified School District, said the district is seeing a need for bus drivers.
“It is common to hire bus drivers this time of year. This year is much worse (than) we have experienced in the past,” Lasyone said. “For our district, there are several reasons. We have had retirements and some have chosen to leave bus driving for other professions.”
She said the goal is to maintain all routes, however, they may have some stops suspended until staff is hired – those that are suspended are determined by legal requirements and need.
YCUSD offers no-cost training, Lasyone said. She said there's an application, orientation and interview involved.
Successful candidates complete 20 to 25 hours of classroom instruction and 20 to 25 hours of behind-the-wheel training.
Drivers are required to be 21 years of age, have a good driving record, pass a drug test and like the work, Lasyone said.
During the last school year, only certain student populations were able to utilize district-provided transportation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Currently, she said, the plan is to transport both general education and special education students during the upcoming school year.
“Transportation will be provided per the health departments' COVID protocols,” Lasyone said.
Lasyone said they have seen an increased number of drivers not stopping for the red lights and stop signs on school busses, and would like to remind drivers to be respectful of school bus lights and stop for the safety of students.