Marion struggles to find bus drivers as virus surges

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Marion County Public Schools continues to struggle to find enough school bus drivers, forcing current drivers to take on several routes and snarling how long it takes students to get to school and back home.

It’s the same story around the state as many school districts are finding it difficult because of the pandemic to hire enough bus drivers, with some using managers and other stop-gap measures to get students to class as the new school year begins.

The Associated Press contacted most of the state’s 20 largest districts Monday and many said they have not been able to fully fill their openings, forcing some drivers to handle extra routes. Other districts are asking parents to drive their children to and from school when possible to reduce the numbers requiring busing or putting transportation department managers back behind the wheel.

In Marion, COVID-19 has exacerbated the shortage and the district needs about two dozen drivers.

“What’s hitting us most now is providing substitute drivers for those being quarantined” because they tested positive for COVID or came in direct contact with someone who has it, district spokesman Kevin Christian said. “When you have a shortage compounded by quarantined drivers, that’s extra challenging.”

The district is holding a bus driver job fair on Thursday from 9 – 11 a.m. to try and fill the open positions. The event is set for CareerSource Citrus Levy Marion at 2703 NE 14th St. Apply online at marionschools.net

Florida has been hard hit by the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic, and that has likely scared off candidates for a job that can be stressful under normal circumstances. Many districts are not requiring masks on buses, but even districts that do are short drivers.

“Recruiting and retaining bus drivers was a struggle pre-pandemic, but the labor shortage in general has exacerbated the issue not only for us, but for districts everywhere,” said Erin Maloney, a spokesperson for Hillsborough County Public Schools in the Tampa Bay area. The district requires students to wear masks unless their parents opt them out, but it still needs to add 100 drivers to the 750 now working.

“Our bus drivers are running double loads in some areas to make sure kids get to school,” Maloney said. “We also have anyone with a license who is able to drive working in our transportation building out on the roads instead. It is all hands on deck.”

The state education department had no immediate comment Monday on the driver shortage. The delta variant of the virus has swept through Florida over the last two months: About 15,600 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, nearly eight times more than in June, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Not all districts are struggling. A few districts like Pinellas, Seminole and Brevard counties say that despite the pandemic, they have enough drivers. But others say they are juggling to cover all their routes.

Palm Beach County schools asked parents to drive their children if possible. Polk County normally has 510 drivers, but only has 430 working. Collier County is using staff and former substitute drivers to fully cover its routes. Lake County has 26 open positions out of 237. Lee County, which needs to add 100 drivers, made its drivers full-time employees so they are eligible for health insurance and other benefits sooner, giving an incentive to new hires.

The Ocala Gazette contributed to this report.

Posted in Education, News

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