Pearland, Friendswood, Alvin ISDs balance transportation needs with social distancing

Pearland ISD employees give buses a thorough cleaning at the end of each school day. (Courtesy Pearland ISD/Designed by Justin Howell)
Pearland ISD employees give buses a thorough cleaning at the end of each school day. (Courtesy Pearland ISD/Designed by Justin Howell)

Pearland ISD employees give buses a thorough cleaning at the end of each school day. (Courtesy Pearland ISD/Designed by Justin Howell)

Pearland, Alvin and Friendswood ISDs have eased into the 2020-21 school year, though much is still unknown for the year. Both Alvin and Pearland ISDs started the year with remote learning and integrating students back into the classroom. FISD had planned to do the same, but Hurricane Laura disrupted the district’s remote learning.

One question districts will have to grapple with is how the virus will affect transportation for this year.

“Unfortunately, it is probably too soon to tell,” said Amy Campbell, director of human resources for the Texas Association of School Boards.

Texas school districts have grappled with shortages of bus drivers for the past few years, and local districts are no exception. As many drivers are older individuals and districts may need to add routes to properly social distance students, some district officials are worried they may not have enough drivers.

“It’s going to be a very challenging year for us,” FISD Director of Transportation Dean Lewis said.

Drivers, routes subject to change

In the past, FISD has experienced a shortage of drivers, Lewis said. The district employs 35 drivers but needs 37 to be fully staffed for this year. Typically, the district has 38-40 full-time drivers, each driving one route, but has cut down the number of routes this year due to the lack of drivers.

If the district finds it needs more than 37 routes to accommodate its student population, it will likely have drivers make double runs, or transport a portion of students on a route and then go back and pick up the second round of students, Lewis said.

“We are doing everything we can to adapt,” he said.

AISD typically runs 130 routes with multiple flights, meaning it needs more than 130 drivers to complete its routes, Director of Transportation Jeff Dungen said in a written statement.

Of the 160 drivers the district needs to be fully staffed, AISD is employing 140 this year. Dungen thinks the virus has affected the number of drivers the district is employing this year, he said. He is concerned about the safety of the student, as well as his drivers in the midst of the virus.

“Everyone is worried about that,” he said. “We’re trying to do our best.”

The district is encouraging parents to take their children to school, if they are able, as are PISD and FISD.

Dungen is waiting until more students start to come to school to see if they are short drivers. If they are, qualified staff will help out, he said.

In PISD, the district is adding two routes to accommodate student needs, but the administration is not concerned about the amount of openings the district has, Director of Transportation Keith Kaup said in a written statement.

“As families are choosing their mode of instructions between on-campus or remote instruction, we will naturally see fewer students on our campuses and, consequently, fewer students requiring transportation services,” Kaup said in a written statement.

The district is staffing 112 drivers this year and would need 120 to be fully staffed. However, the district officials do not think the shortage is worse due to COVID-19, as the district has dealt with shortages in the past, Kaup said in a written statement.

It is difficult to tell how many school districts will be understaffed because enrollment for districts continues to change, Campbell said. If only 30%-40% of students were attending in-person classes, then a lack of school drivers may not be a problem for districts. If closer to 60%-70% of students are attending in person, it becomes more of a problem, she said.

“Finding ways to social distance and make sure those kids are safe would be tough if you had a bus driver shortage,” Campbell said.

In AISD, FISD and PISD, roughly 50% of students have opted for in-person learning, though numbers could change after the first nine weeks.

“We are hearing from quite a few districts that enrollment is down right now,” Campbell said. “It is really hard to plan for transportation when you could be unsure of what your student population would look like.”

Solutions to shortages

In all three local districts, a portion of bus drivers are elderly or retired individuals. In FISD, 46% of the bus driver population is 65 or older. A few staffers chose to retire early to avoid the threat of COVID-19, Lewis said.

Older drivers choosing not to come back this year due to COVID-19 is a concern, as those older than 50 make up 90% of the COVID-19-related deaths Brazoria County, according to Sept. 2 COVID-19 case count data. Galveston County does not report COVID-19 related deaths by age.

However, many drivers—even older ones—may choose to continue working with a district as the economy is suffering due to the pandemic. Some people may become bus drivers as they find themselves unemployed, Campbell said.

“A lot of retired folks may not want to return right now, but on the flip side, the economy is not great,” Campbell said. “People tend to apply when the economy is not great.”

In years past, raising pay or lengthening hours would have been good ways for districts to attract drivers, though there is no silver bullet to solving a driver shortage, Campbell said.

However, additional hours often come from driving students to field trips or UIL competitions, both of which are less likely to happen this year, she said. District funding for raises also poses a problem, as districts are not anticipating they will have more money during the legislative biennium, or 2021-22 school year, Campbell said.

If districts are not optimistic that they will receive more money from the state, they are unlikely to increase bus driver pay, Campbell said.

Local districts have relied on other methods of retaining bus drivers. Districts can contract with a private company to fill vacancies.

No local district plans to contract out for drivers this year. However, if PISD unexpectedly finds itself with a shortage midyear, the district will look at its options, Kaup said in a written statement. PISD focuses on active recruiting during the summer months to ensure it does not have a lot of vacancies, he said.

AISD has a training program that steadily funnels drivers into positions, Dungen said. However, the district has struggled with recruiting drivers and offering competitive pay, he said.

“A lot of drivers really do chase the dollar, and you can’t blame them,” Dungen said.

In FISD, the district attracts drivers with its culture, Lewis said.

“Anyone you talk to here will tell you we have a really positive work environment,” Lewis said. “When [a driver] isn’t here, a supervisor, a dispatcher or myself will hop on a bus. We do what we can to make it work.”
By Haley Morrison
Haley Morrison came to Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after graduating from Baylor University. She was promoted to editor in February 2019. Haley primarily covers city government.