Take a new job or take your kids to school? A school bus driver shortage in suburban Minneapolis is leaving some moms with tough choices. It’s happening across America and is a trend that experts say won’t bode well for women and the economy.
How the nationwide school bus driver shortage helps explain our economic weirdness.
One day last spring, Naima Kaidi waited nearly an hour for her kindergartener and first-grader to get home from school. She stood on the corner near her house, but the bus was nowhere to be seen and there was no word why it was so late. Northport Elementary in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, had only recently reopened for in-person classes, and day after day, Kaidi’s family had been struggling with late school bus drop-offs. This day was the worst. Cold and worried, she eventually carried her younger children back home to get her phone and try to find out what was going on — and that was when she got a knock on the door.
It was Roberta Steele, who had driven the school bus in Kaidi’s
neighborhood for years, there to bring the two children home. Steele
knew where the kids on her route lived. She knew who their parents were.
And even though it wasn’t her fault that the bus was late, Steele made
sure the kids arrived home safely. “She helped me, she [brought] my kids
over here,” Kaidi said. Even if the bus system wasn’t reliable, the
But that was last school year. Even then there was already a shortage
of bus drivers in the district. Steele said that had been the case for
years, though district representatives were quick to point out that
there had never been a shortage of this magnitude. This fall, the
shortage became dire enough that Steele’s old route — the one where she
knew all the kids well enough to take them to their doorsteps when
needed — was consolidated out of existence. In October, the district
told parents that 12 routes probably wouldn’t be staffed
this year. Steele was transferred to a different route with new kids,
and sometimes the chaos of route changes and late buses meant she also
had to drive kids home from other, equally unfamiliar routes.
It isn’t an easy job. The kids don’t behave. Some, unsure of their
own addresses, can’t tell Steele where to go. When parents get angry at a
system that isn’t working, they blame Steele. And the company that runs
the buses has packed her schedule to the point that there’s no longer
time left to pee between runs. She’s thinking of quitting, even though
she knows that will make things even harder for the families relying on
Meanwhile, Kaidi’s family spent the first two months of school with
no bus at all. Instead of waiting at her corner with other parents, she
spent her afternoons sitting in her car in the pickup line outside
school. The line backed up for blocks, 40 or 50 cars deep, threading out
of the parking lot and down an undulating suburban road. Kaidi had to
get there an hour before school ended just to make sure she was near the
front. She says she turned down a job so she could do this. Likewise,
other parents had to change their hours, lose pay and go without sleep —
all to sit in their cars, waiting for their children.
As the bus driver shortage continues, parents and drivers, often
women on both sides, have been stretched to the breaking point as they
try to do more with less — less time, less money, less help, less of a
sense of safety and respect. “This problem existed before COVID, but
nobody wanted to hear about it, especially the school districts,” said Zina Ronca, a driver supervisor for DuVall Bus Service in West Grove, Pennsylvania, who has been in the industry for nearly two decades.
There haven’t been enough school bus drivers nationwide for years. But
it took a pandemic to make that shortage visible and painful to more
than just the drivers themselves.
And in that way, what’s happening at Northport Elementary reflects an
even bigger problem for schools nationwide. Across the country, reports
have documented shortages of substitute teachers, school nurses,
cafeteria workers and the paraprofessionals who help teachers manage
their workloads and give kids more small-group attention. As with
drivers, those shortages existed before anyone had ever heard of
COVID-19. The problems were there, waiting, and then the pandemic came
along and made them simultaneously more visible and more … just more.
All these jobs are about service and care, at pay scales that simply
aren’t competitive with jobs that use similar skills but don’t require
child care balanced precariously on top of other demands. And when the
people who do those jobs quit, the effects get tangled up with other
parts of the economy and other parts of society. Amid the pandemic,
individual workers are making choices for themselves and their families
that affect other people’s families and jobs in ways nobody quite
expected. The bus driver shortage isn’t just a bus driver shortage —
it’s a knot nobody knows how to cut.
When I pictured the village of people who would help me raise my
children, the person driving them to and from school didn’t come
immediately to mind. But in the third year of school disruption, it
turns out that the bus driver is a person in your neighborhood whom you
miss when you don’t see them every day. The job involves only a minimal
amount of interaction, Roberta Steele told me. But it’s daily
interaction. “You know you’re making a difference for some kids, and
that brings me great joy,” she said. “I have kids that I had in middle
school that are now in high school. And they will walk from the high
school to the middle school just to say hi.”
Steele, 50, is a barrel-chested woman with cropped, spiky hair the
color of her last name. She comes off as perky and outgoing, basically
the vibe of a favorite grade-school gym teacher. She doesn’t have kids
of her own but places a lot of value in the role she can play in the
lives of other people’s.
Steele has been driving a school bus since 2014, all of it for
Robbinsdale School District 281, one of those sprawling suburban
districts that encompass schools and children in multiple cities on the
fringes of Minneapolis. She took the job after leaving the Minneapolis
Police Reserve but almost quit in the first two years. The kids were
just a lot. A typical school bus can carry 70 children when full. They
get bored, or they just plain don’t know how to behave. “I resorted to
bribery as a method of training,” she told me, using small treats to
manage the threat of prepubescent uprisings.
Today, she can quell most bad behavior with a look delivered through
the rearview mirror. Her starting pay, driving a 15-ton vehicle down the
winding, narrow roads of inner-ring suburbs while managing the behavior
of a small village worth of kids, and for which she needed to take
classes and earn a special license, was $14 an hour. “It’s really
rewarding, or it can be, if you like children, right?” Steele said.
But not everyone does. Or, at least, not at that price point.
Steele’s entire bus driving career has been marked by not having enough
colleagues. She told me she found the job in the first place because the
district was recruiting heavily to fill a shortage, though
representatives from the district stressed that they had never had a
shortage like this before. Nationwide, more than 50 percent of districts
have experienced a shortage of drivers every year since at least 2006,
according to annual surveys conducted by School Bus Fleet magazine.
Most years, the driver shortage affected more than 70 percent of
districts. The lowest the shortage has been in all that time was in the
depths of the Great Recession.