Show respect for the challenge bus drivers face

Honored to have this piece in the Virginian-Pilot

Show respect for the challenge bus drivers face

BY BILL PIKE GUEST COLUMNIST

On Oct. 5, my wife and I were driving from Richmond toward Smith Mountain Lake. We were meeting longtime college friends for a few days.

Traveling on Virginia Route 24, we eventually intersected with U.S. 29. At that intersection, I looked to my left and saw a parked Campbell County school bus. The bus had a large banner on the side stating the school system needed school bus drivers.

As we made our turn on to U.S. 29, I thought to myself probably no school system in Virginia has been immune from finding and hiring school bus drivers. Apparently, Virginia isn’t alone in filling these driver seats. I’ve read the headlines about this need across America too.

I had the privilege of working in the public schools of Virginia for 31 years as a teacher, coach, assistant principal and principal. Also, I served a 14-month appointment on our local school board. So, I know how important school bus drivers are to school systems.

There are many challenging jobs in a school system. However, one of the toughest is driving a school bus. In fact, in this driver shortage, I often ask, “Why would any perfectly sane human being want to drive a school bus?”

To become a school bus driver is no easy task. School systems work carefully to find candidates who can meet multiple qualifying standards.

Once those hurdles are passed, drivers undergo extensive training learning all about that big yellow box on wheels. This includes driving the bus in a variety of settings and conditions.

When drivers complete their training, they are assigned a route. Before the start of school, the drivers drive this route pin-pointing their designated stops, while also taking in the terrain.

While driving a route, a driver is focused on three keys: the road in front of them, the passengers sitting behind them and listening to radio messages from pupil transportation dispatchers who are choreographing routes across the system.

Unfortunately, the road in front of the driver is filled with other motorists who run stop signs, ignore yield signs, barrel through red lights, speed beyond the posted limit and who can be inconsiderately impatient with the pace of a school bus.

Additionally, despite interior cameras and an oversized rearview mirror, sometimes disruptive student passengers are a distraction for a driver. Student code of conducts apply to riding a school bus too.

School bus drivers must also be amateur psychologists. Drivers use their interpersonal skills to develop relationships with students, parents and the staffs at each school they serve.

Often overlooked in the daily transportation of students is that school systems also use their bus drivers to carry students to all types of extracurricular activities after school. This is another level of pressure for drivers as some activities require traveling longer distances during the evening.

Financially, pupil transportation is a big chunk of a school system’s budget. The cost of the bus, maintenance, fuel, along with pay and benefits for drivers are expensive expenditures.

During this shortage of drivers, school systems are in competition to find qualified candidates. Human resource leaders have worked to create signing bonuses, raise pay and improve benefits to attract drivers. While this might be easier for larger school systems to implement, systems with smaller budgets will struggle to match those incentives.

Is there a solution?

To be truthful, I believe school systems are working hard to find and hire competent drivers. But I believe school system leaders and our communities need to revisit a neglected word in our world today — respect.

Veteran school bus drivers will acknowledge that adequate pay and benefits are important. But those same drivers will state of equal importance is respect for what they do every day. This respect must come from students, parents, school personnel and the motorist on their routes.

That respect is critical for the bus driver’s sanity.

Bill Pike resides in Henrico County. For 31 years, he was a public school educator in Martinsville and Henrico County including a 14-month appointment on the Henrico County School Board.

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