HAMBURG, N.Y. — According to the New York School Bus Contractors Association, there is a 15% statewide school bus driver shortage. It’s clear as you drive around town that there is still a need for folks to help New York’s more than 2.3 million students get to school.

Why is this still a problem? Turns out, there has always been a shortage of drivers. It was only made worse by the pandemic.

What You Need To Know

  • Older drivers decided to retire early once class went virtual

  • Legalization of marijuana could be another setback – as school buses are under federal guidance

  • Plus, an under-the-hood test, has tripped up a number of potential drivers from getting a commercial license

  • All of this, compounded with the average salary of around $40,000, is making it difficult for companies to fill the gap

"There is not a single school district or school contractor in the state of New York, maybe even in the country that would tell you they're comfortable with their staffing levels at the time,” Nick Vallone, New York School Bus Contractors Association president, said.

At Fisher Bus Service in Hamburg, there are 100 yellow school buses ready to bring Hamburg and Orchard Park students back to the classroom.   

“Finding school bus drivers, for the last handful of years, it's been quite a challenge,” Angela Coughlin, general manager of Fisher Bus said.

Coughlin says in a perfect world, she’d have 120 drivers on staff.  

“There is no such thing as enough school bus drivers,” Coughlin said.

The drivers they do have play a critical role in each student’s life. Fisher Bus and the Hamburg Central School District work together like parents, to give kids the extra mental and emotional support they need.

“They look for social cues in kids that may need extra help as far as anything emotional goes,” Coughlin said. “We do a lot with suicide prevention, a lot of bullying training.”

“We train them along with all of our other employees, because oftentimes they're the first adult to see a child,” Michael Cornell, Hamburg Central School District superintendent and president of Erie-Niagara Superintendents Association, said.

If a driver sees signs of mental or emotional stress, they’ll flag a district employee. Cornell says the student mental health crisis started back in 2015.

“Every school district in Western New York and across the state is doing something substantial to address the mental and emotional needs of children and also families,” Cornell said.

He’s right. Here’s Niagara Falls’ approach.

“We're looking to ramp up that training where we bring in the mental health providers that we have for our teachers, and share those same trauma informed care practices,” Mark Laurrie, superintendent of Niagara Falls City School District, said.

It’s not lost on Laurrie that a bus driver is often the first person some of his 7,000 students see.

“Don't ever underestimate the power and the need for a good driver and associate as it relates to mental health,” Laurrie said.

Mental health is just one continuing challenge. A driver shortage has the district again staggering school start times. The pressure to be reliable is felt well before the first school bell.

“A lot of our kids, they rely on us to get them to school on time because that's they'll have breakfast at school, you know, and it's the beginning part of their day,” Michael Dowd, president of Niagara Falls Coachlines, said. “And if you're a young kid and you're starting the day off and you're hungry because your bus got to school late, you're going to have a tough day.”

Dowd says about 15 years ago, they had 85 drivers. This school year, they have 50.

“Today, with the improvements in routing technology, I'd say we probably could use 65 would be a good number for us to have now, or 70,” Dowd said.

The shortage has an impact on kids beyond bus delays.

“If there are more kids on the bus, there's more stress on the kids, there's more conflict, there's more altercation, and so we have to train our drivers and aides to deal with that,” Dowd explained.

It’s a challenge for sure. But this year, Dowd is hoping new GPS technology, where families can track their bus, will make things a little easier if there are delays.

If you’re looking for a career change, Coughlin says they hire year-round, adding that driving is a profession you might fall in love with unexpectedly.

“It's a job that turns into a career that grows on your heart,” Coughlin smiled.

Now, if you’re dealing with bus delays and you’re frustrated, you’re kindly asked to not approach buses and please do not get physical with a driver or bus aides. There have been instances of that in the past, and not only is it traumatizing for the driver or aide, but think about how that could impact a child as it unfolds. It’s suggested you call your school district, or bus provider, to sort out the issue.