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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The bus driver shortage at Jefferson County Public Schools, a problem at school systems throughout Kentucky and the U.S. this year, continues to frustrate parents like Sejal Patel.

Her children — a son in sixth grade and a daughter in eighth grade at Meyzeek Middle School — regularly arrive about 15 minutes late for their first-period classes. Buses are also “consistently” late in the evenings, she said.

“They’ve had a couple of programs and a couple of tests that they have already missed or they’ve been late at," Patel said in an interview Thursday with WDRB News. "My son, being the first-time middle schooler, it’s been a little bit overwhelming for him."

A substitute driver left about 25 students, including her children, at Meyzeek Middle on Wednesday, forcing her to scramble to find transportation for them around 2:45 p.m., she said. Patel, who said she was in the middle of a work meeting when she got calls from her son and daughter, ultimately found friends who could pick them up at school.

“In the last four weeks, this is the second time it has happened,” she said. “I know one of my very closest friends, it’s the third time it has happened to her.”

JCPS Chief Operations Officer Chris Perkins said the district hopes to have more help in the drivers’ seats soon, and he noted that the district has not had to cancel services because of the ongoing crunch.

Kentucky’s largest school district is offering bus drivers an extra $6 per hour during the COVID-19 pandemic, a rate that district employees in other areas can earn if they take on the added responsibility of driving students to and from schools. JCPS is also offering stipends worth up to $5,000 for staff with federal stimulus money.

Perkins said JCPS expects to add about 15 more drivers next week after prospective hires complete training. Another 25 district employees have begun the process of getting their commercial driver’s licenses and several more have expressed interest in becoming school-based activity drivers, he said.

“That’ll offset some of those earlier pickup times and later drop-off times,” Perkins said. “We’ll have more drivers to kind of spread out those runs.”

Records obtained by WDRB News show that JCPS had 771 drivers on staff as of late-August, down from 940 in the 2019-20 school year and 954 in 2018-19. This year’s staffing is slightly higher than last year, when 735 bus drivers were on payroll during a school year mostly spent remotely because of the pandemic before transitioning to a hybrid schedule of in-person and virtual learning.

The district indicated in response to an open records request that 441 buses are handling more than one run.

Driver absences exacerbate the existing shortage. Perkins said the district averages about 10 buses daily that are affected when drivers do not show up for work.

“It’s a factor of bus drivers getting sick, calling in, not anticipating those changes and having to use one bus to cover another bus's run after they’ve already made their own run,” he said.

Faced with their own school bus driver shortages, other states are taking or considering unusual steps to help ensure kids get to schools and homes safely. Massachusetts, for instance, has activated its National Guard to drive school buses amid its ongoing shortage of drivers, according to reports.

About half of 1,500 respondents in a recent survey released by three national school transportation organizations described their bus driver shortages as “severe” or “desperate” while nearly two-thirds said their shortages were their districts' top concerns. Most respondents in every region of the U.S. have had to alter their transportation services because of driver shortages, according to the survey.

“This survey reaffirms individual feedback that we have heard from our members that both in-district and contract school bus operators are facing serious challenges with respect to staffing of the driver pool this fall,” National School Transportation Association Executive Director Curt Macysyn said in a statement released with the results.

John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783 that represents JCPS bus drivers, said the district is short about 150 bus drivers “if not more.”

Some JCPS bus drivers are handling two or three bus runs to help make up the difference, he said. COVID-19 protocols, particularly federal masking requirements, have also taken a toll on drivers, he said.

“The burnout is high,” Stovall said. “Because they’re short, they’re already stressed to begin with. And sometimes, they feel pressure that they’ve got to do this, they’ve got to that, you’ve got to run back over here.”

JCPS bus drivers are also dealing with “angry parents and unruly kids” as part of their jobs, adding to the stress they regularly experience, he said.

“It’s not a real attractive job, but you have to have a special mindset to begin with to do that job, and a lot of bus drivers really love it,” Stovall said. “They love the schedule and the flexibility that they can have, but right now being short, a lot of that’s out the window. So it’s making it hard to keep them and it’s making it hard to bring people in even with the incentives.”

However, the district said preliminary data show behavior incidents reported on JCPS buses are down more than 50% compared to the first four weeks of the 2019-20 and 2018-19 school years.

“We’ve actually seen substantial reduction in behavior issues on buses this year despite the overcrowding issues and longer rides that we’ve been hearing about,” Perkins said.

JCPS has seen an uptick in car ridership so far this school year, which has led some schools to experience traffic congestion. Perkins said that varies based on school campuses and how many access points are available for carpool and bus traffic.

“We’ve been pretty responsive and helping them to address and in some cases make alterations to the car rider lines,” he said.

Parents like Patel hope to see the district’s transportation problems resolved sooner rather than later.

While she understands the ongoing driver shortage, she believes JCPS can do more to keep parents informed about bus issues. The current situation, she said, must be temporary and “is definitely not something that we need to get used to.”

“It’s getting to a breaking point,” Patel said. “... We did have a lot of stability before COVID. I’m not sure if we will ever get to that point this year, but there have to be some changes.”

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