ATLANTA, Ga. — Fulton County Schools is asking parents for patience as it works to fill a shortage of bus drivers to transport nearly 70,000 students to and from school each day.
In a letter sent to parents last week, district officials cited the “extreme shortage of drivers” for delays in buses serving the system’s 108 schools.
“Sometimes it is necessary to double up on runs or drop the students and return to a subdivision/school and get another load,” wrote Leslie Hannon, a transportation supervisor in North Fulton. “Thank you for your patience during these trying times.”
The district is currently running 704 routes with approximately 675 drivers. That is a shortage of nearly 30 drivers with no flexibility for sick days or other absences.
The issue is not a new one. Fulton County Schools has struggled for years to maintain a full roster of bus drivers, enticing new applicants through higher hourly pay and retention bonuses.
“The Atlanta metro market has always been highly competitive for K-12 personnel, including bus drivers,” said Noel Maloof, chief operations officer. “So we continue to assess ways to gain a competitive edge.”
Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic last year proved to be a double-edged sword. While many drivers retired or took a leave of absence, fewer drivers were needed. Many students opted to remain in virtual learning for most or all of the school year.
“Last year we could combine and collapse routes, which allowed for driver flexibility,” Maloof said.
But this year, with more students returning to classrooms, the shortage is critical. Bus drivers are often retired workers from other professions or older individuals, those most vulnerable to the virus.
Many are still uncomfortable being in an enclosed environment surrounded by students, even with masks on and enhanced safety measures, Maloof said.
“As with every area district, we are seeking drivers for vacant positions,” he noted. “As needed, we have covered routes by taking a piece from one driver’s route and putting it on another, combining routes, and having transportation staff drive routes.”
Locally, Fulton County Schools must compete with more than 20 public school systems in the Atlanta metro area for bus drivers, as well as dozens of private schools operating their own bus fleets.
Nationally, the shortage has prompted districts to offer thousands of dollars in signing bonuses, and even resorting to paying parents to bring their kids to school.
Maloof said the need for drivers with a commercial driver license (CDL) impacts the entire transportation sector, from bus drivers to long-haul drivers. Bus drivers can make considerably more money going to work in the private sector.
“The demand is [high] in several industries that require CDL or experienced drivers,” Maloof said. “The pool is smaller and smaller for us due to Amazon, UPS, the movie industry, construction drivers, trash collection and the airline industry…to name a few.”
According to the American Trucking Association, the trucking industry was already short-staffed by nearly 61,000 drivers in 2018 prior to the pandemic. That number is expected to swell to 160,000 drivers in the next five years as consumers increasingly bypass brick and mortar shops for online shopping, according to the association data.
Maloof says the community can help. Families can understand the challenges are national, not just in Fulton County Schools, and interested drivers can apply on the district’s website and be on the road in weeks.
“[Parents need to] know we are constantly exploring measures to improve," Maloof said. “And we are hiring, come join our ranks!”