School districts in Santa Clara County are doing all they can to recruit bus drivers amid a nationwide shortage.

Ongoing vacancies have stretched drivers, prompting schools to woo potential employees with higher pay and training opportunities. Shortages also mean longer bus journeys, which can lead to delays at school. Officials say there is a loss of learning if students do not arrive on time.

According to a nationwide study by the EdWeek Research Center, 86% of districts have bus driver positions open, while 79% report fewer applicants than last year. Student transportation has declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting locally in the reduction of San Jose Unified School District bus service to 17 schools during the 2020-21 school year.

The Moreland School District in San Jose is offering new bus drivers a $1,000 hiring bonus, Superintendent Clover Codd said. The district made the decision after struggling to fill vacancies since June.

“We are still able to provide services to our students and families without affecting the school schedule,” Codd told San Jose Spotlight. “But if one of those drivers gets sick – just one – it will certainly impact our ability to get the kids to school on time, pick them up in a timely manner and get them home afterwards. school.”

The district employs six drivers and 10% of the population, or about 400 students across eight campuses, rely on bus service, Codd said. Drivers are pushing the clock as they take additional routes in light of vacancies.

“Getting the kids to school on time is a big concern of ours simply because kids have missed in-person school so much due to the pandemic,” Codd told San Jose Spotlight. “Every minute counts at this point.”

Bus driver shortages are impacting the Bay Area as a whole, said Stacy Murphy, vice president of Teamsters Local 853, which represents bus drivers at select San Jose schools. New pilots are rare, which means that current pilots take more than usual.

“They’re exhausted,” Murphy told San Jose Spotlight. “(Schools) have routes that aren’t covered because they don’t have enough drivers.”

School districts are actually competing with tech companies for drivers as workers return to the office, said Meredyth Hudson, Campbell Union High School District’s chief strategy and human capital officer. The district is to hire three drivers and provide transportation for students with special needs, as well as athletes or clubs traveling to events.

“We’re having a hard time competing with companies like Google, Apple and others who provide transportation for staff,” Hudson told San Jose Spotlight.

School bus drivers also need credentials and other qualifications. Hudson said the district is working to address the issue by providing training to potential applicants.

“We have access to a trainer, so we try to provide as much as we can in-house, especially if someone wants to work with us but maybe there’s something missing from the requirements,” she said.

Understaffing means routes can change daily for drivers with little warning, Murphy said. For school bus drivers who specifically transport students with disabilities or special needs, it can be difficult to connect with students throughout the year.

“Some of these drivers will continually choose the same routes just to stay with the same students, because a lot of these students need that connection,” Murphy told San Jose Spotlight. “There are a lot of kids with autism, kids with special needs, (where) it helps if they see the same drivers, the same faces.”

Transportation is a critical aspect of educational equity, Codd said. The district aims to provide as many students as possible with reliable bus service as families face high inflation.

“Cutting out transportation just doesn’t seem like a viable option. So many families are struggling these days, and the cost of transportation and the cost of gas have all gone up,” Codd told San Jose Spotlight. “Bus drivers provide an essential service.

Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.