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First Student still facing driver shortage before school year, but no concerns on operations

School bus drivers are one among many workforce niches facing worker shortages across the country, but Rochester Public Schools is prepared for the problem, even as partnering school bus company

First Student
First Student trainer Patrick Malloy and driver Kevin Harbaugh go over an annual school bus certification ahead of the start of the school year Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — With only a week to go until the school year begins for Rochester Public Schools, First Student, Inc. is still short on bus drivers for the start of the year.

But considering where the company was last spring, things are looking up.

First Student is short 10 drivers for the start of the school year, said Mike Pearse, Rochester location manager for First Student. The company plans to have around half of those positions filled by this time next week it has completing their road testing.

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“We've, the company as a whole, has really focused on recruiting this summer. So we've moved a lot of people through the system. With the number of staff and mechanics that are able to drive will more than have everything covered next week,” Pearse said.

Over the course of the summer, First Student recruited new drivers everywhere from the Olmsted County Fair to going door-to-door in Rochester neighborhoods to hire new bus drivers. Business cards handed out as hiring fliers indicated "no experience needed" for potential recruits for the transportation company.

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Approximately 11,500 RPS students use public transportation such as school buses to get to and from school each day. The majority of daily bus routes RPS has are covered, but the one area where First Student is lacking drivers is bus services for students who receive special education and extracurricular activities.

Jeff Kappers, transportation director for RPS, said these routes are being covered temporarily by the mechanics and office staff at First Student.

“We aren't going to have issues with alternative transportation for these students. When you have drivers with other jobs, they have to work overtime. The challenge is finding those who can drive full time, but as far as I'm aware, it's not going to impact schools right now,” he said.

New hires are not typically asked to drive buses meant for students who receive special education. First Student prefers veteran, full-time drivers to take those routes to keep familiar faces around for those students.

“Last I talked to Kappers, we had most of the (special education) routes filled. Most drivers are willing to do special ed. Rarely do they prefer not to,” Pearse said.

First Student
First Student school buses Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

On the extracurricular side of bus transportation, the largest challenge will be high school sports teams needing to leave at or near the same time school lets out. That is where availability for part-time drivers will be the biggest challenge for them to make it on time.

Kappers said extracurricular bus scheduling always presents a challenge because the leave time for an athletic event often coincides with the time kids are going home from school.

"Our first priority, of course, is getting kids to and from school," he said. "That does create some challenges, and they (First Student) look to other vendors and whatnot to see if they can help.”

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Pearse explained how these issues are operated on the bus dispatch side, saying it's basically a balancing act between the number of drivers available and the number of charters needed for extracurricular events. If there are more than two charter requests for extracurricular activities at the end of a school day, it is usually declined by First Student as they do not want to overextend their services and delay routes for students.

Both Kappers and Pearse feel school bus services are better prepared for any hiccups that come up for services compared to last spring.

“We will have no problem having a driver on every route, and we'll get every kid home,” Pearse said.

If any issues do come up with any of the bus routes during the school year, Kappers said the district will be in contact and available to reach out to.

“Last year when we were short we would run a special ed route out of one of our big transit vans. If it comes to that we would probably do that again and we will stay in constant contact with families,” he said.

For now the national bus driver shortage for RPS will not prevent the wheels on the bus from going around to start the 2022-23 school year, and families can expect their students to get to and from school in a timely manner.

Theodore Tollefson is a business reporter for the Post Bulletin. He is originally from Burnsville, Minn., and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a bachelor's degree in journalism in December 2020. Readers can reach Theodore at 507-281-7420 or ttollefson@postbulletin.com.
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