Bus driver shortage contributes to long, dark morning rides for Lee students
It is the last day of school in Lee County. And for thousands of kids, that means a break from middle-of-the-night, wake-up calls and long, dark bus rides.
Autumn is a student at Estero High School. She wakes up at 4:00 a.m. Because to get to school, she has to make it to her bus stop before 5:00 a.m.
“The bus typically picks me up at like 5:00 to 5:05 a.m.,” Autumn said. ‘And then I get to school at 6:30 a.m.”
We followed along and waited with her. That day, her bus was almost 30 minutes late. And when it arrived, a substitute driver was behind the wheel. She has to drive a complicated route from south Fort Myers through Fort Myers Beach to Bonita Springs. They traveled for an hour before more kids got on. After roughly 90 minutes, she arrived at Estero High.
Autumn said she feels like her route does not make sense.
“We just go everywhere,” Autumn said.
Autumn wishes the district could just split her route into two, but she also has an idea of why that can’t happen.
“Because the school system does not have enough buses,” Autumn said.
Actually, the School District of Lee County doesn’t have enough drivers.
“It’s a simple math problem,” explained Roger Lloyd, Lee County Public Schools’ director of transportation operations. “If you have 751 routes, and you don’t have 751 drivers, you’re going to struggle to get kids to and from school on time.”
Lloyd said the district is currently down to 725 drivers, which is 26 less than what they need to be at full staff.
“The bottom line is we have late buses,” Lloyd said.
He said the district is doing what it can to make the job more appealing, partly by bumping up the starting salary for a regular driver to roughly $16 per hour.
“We’re trying our best to be competitive,” Lloyd said.
The problem is a quick search on job site Glassdoor shows they can make a lot more money driving for other companies.
With school bus drivers already taking on more routes, things get even trickier when they call in sick, and the others have to pick up the slack.
“Even this morning on the radios they were like, ‘Hey, guys, there’s a shortage of buses today, and bus drivers, be nice and pick up other people’s kids,'” Autumn told us about the day we followed her bus.
The district could not provide the number of drivers who call out per day because they say it varies, but Autumn said she has a substitute driver at least once a month.
“It’s sort of stinks having to have a sub because they don’t know your route,” Autumn said. “They don’t know where they’re going.”
Autumn does not mind when it is her regular driver. Normally, she just sleeps. But when there is a sub, she often has to stay up and help with directions.
“Every 10 minutes I’d have to wake up and be like, ‘What? Yeah, sure, you turn this way,'” Autumn said.
Lloyd said they do not recommend drivers take directions from riders, but the high school students can be helpful. He said having a substitute can add an extra 20 to 30 minutes to the ride because they are not familiar with the route.
“And I can tell you that it does stress my drivers out showing up late,” Lloyd said. “Because they build relationships with the kids, and then the kids are sitting there waiting, and they don’t want their kids waiting 10, 15, 20 minutes for them.”
Without those spots filled, Lloyd said it affects the whole department.
“Every problem kind of compounds, and it’s a domino effect,” Lloyd said. “There’s no tougher job than being a bus driver, a sub bus driver probably even more so.”
So bus rides stay long, and kids like Autumn just have to wait it out.
Lloyd said the average bus ride for a student is 35 minutes long, and they try to keep routes to no more 70 minutes long. We asked the school district how many kids ride the bus for an hour or longer, and the public records department said they are still working on getting us a cost estimate for that information.