ORLEANS – Tiffany Wood-Wright never had issues with her four children taking the bus to and from school, that is until recently.
The East Orleans resident, who has children in the Nauset Public Schools including a first and fifth grader at Orleans Elementary School, said adjusted bus routes implemented in early December due to a lack of drivers have caused problems for her and other elementary school parents.
"I didn't know where my kids were at one point," she said. "I can't get in touch with the school. Sometimes they have to call the bus company, so I was waiting and waiting at the bus stop, and my kids weren't showing up. It's a bad feeling. I didn't like that at all."
With one driver out on leave, other drivers have been left to absorb portions of the uncovered route, according to parents who spoke for this story. That has led to adjusted routes that in some cases are taking more than twice the amount of time to get to and from school.
Wright said what used to be a 15-minute ride to school for her elementary school children is now closer to 40 minutes. Jamie Balliett, who has children in first and third grade at OES, also said the ride time for his family has about doubled.
"One route alone went from 17 stops to 31 stops, and that's just too much for elementary school students," he said in an email.
For school districts and the Cape Cod Collaborative, which provides bus transportation for Nauset and other districts including Monomoy, Bourne, Mashpee, Truro and Nantucket, finding and retaining bus drivers is an increasingly growing problem. The issue has put the collaborative in what Paul Hilton, the agency's executive director, calls a state of "ongoing problem solving."
"I would say that we're working in concert with the district to develop responses and resolutions to the issues based on the resources that are available," he said when reached by phone.
With bus driver shortages being reported nationally, the collaborative isn't alone in the problem, Hilton noted. Locally, he said Provincetown, which handles its own bus transportation, is struggling to find drivers. So too are administrators in Barnstable, Bourne and Dennis-Yarmouth, districts that handle their own special education transportation.
"It's been necessary for every district I'm familiar with to consolidate routes and to reevaluate what can be done," Hilton said.
But the delays caused by the adjusted routes have posed logistical problems for parents such as Wright, who has had to rework her schedule around the new drop off and pickup times. Other parents are dealing with the opposite problem of very early pickup times, she said.
"One of my friends, their son was getting picked up at 6:30 in the morning, when they used to sleep until after 6:30," she said. "It was quite a change."
The reasons for the shortages are many. Nauset School Superintendent Brooke Clenchy in an email said that retaining drivers has been difficult since the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Things that we, or our children, may well have been able to take advantage of prior to our time of COVID, we are simply not yet able to re-implement — the manpower is not available," she said.
Hilton, meanwhile, said the demographics for the job have changed noticeably over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, he said, it was common for parents to drive buses for their children's schools. But those drivers are aging out of the job, he said, and finding people to replace them has proven difficult. Many drivers who are hired don't hold on to the job for long, he added.
The cost of housing on the Cape is also playing a hand in the driver shortage locally, Hilton said. As property values continue to go up, drivers in some cases have opted to sell their homes and relocate.
Meanwhile, the shortage has only made the job more difficult for drivers currently operating routes in the district. Wright said the same driver has been bussing her children for years.
"We love our bus driver," she said. "She's wonderful, but I think it's put pressure on her too. She's always on time, on the dot. But when you go messing with the bus routes, it screws them up."
"Parents want things to happen expeditiously," Hilton said. "Districts want things to happen expeditiously. And the drivers are sort of caught in between. You can only move so many kids so fast."
The collaborative continues to work to make bus driver jobs attractive to a broader range of potential candidates, offering incentives such as state retirement benefits and health insurance copays. But keeping a full complement of drivers remains a challenge.
"It's not an employer's economy at the moment," Hilton said. "People aren't knocking down the door to take jobs as school bus drivers unless they really want to be school bus drivers."
"I totally get that," Wright said. "It's like that with many places in our community. People can't find help, so I get it. I'm not really mad or anything. It's just frustrating."
While she said she and other parents she has spoken with have adjusted their schedules to the revised routes, Wright said she is primarily concerned with how the lengthier routes are impacting students.
"They don't want to be on the bus that long," she said. "When you get out of work, you want to go straight home. It's the same with them. They get out of school and they want to come home and have their snack. That's a long wait, I think, for them."
Beyond longer bus rides, the adjusted routes have thrown off other aspects of her children's bus routines, including seemingly simple things such as not being able to get their normal seats on the bus.
Wright said she received an email from the district last month saying that the new routes will be kept throughout the remainder of the current school year. Clenchy in her email said while the district does not want to make the new routes permanent, administrators "cannot guarantee that at this time."
"I haven't spoken with the bus company," she said. "I'm sort of just rolling with the punches."
Balliett, meanwhile, questioned whether the altered routes are allowed under the collaborative's agreement with Nauset.
"The school district signed a contract with the bus company and those terms need to be adhered to," he said.
Hilton said the changes were decided upon by Nauset officials, noting that the collaborative does not have the authority to unilaterally make changes to the routes itself.
"The school districts on the Cape own us, so we're technically part of them," he said. "We construct our routes in coordination with them. We don't make any changes."
Drivers undergo 60 to 80 hours of training and must pass written and physical tests as well as a road test. Regular drug testing is also required as part of the job, Hilton said. Anyone interested in applying for a position as a bus driver can call the collaborative's human resources department at 508-420-6950, ext. 1122.
Email Ryan Bray at firstname.lastname@example.org