Back in August, a couple of weeks before the start of the school year, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Tricia McManus called a press conference to talk about the state of transportation.

The district was 58 bus drivers short, and she wanted parents to be prepared for delays.

“We are working tirelessly to pick up kids on time, get them to school on time, and get them home on time in the afternoon," she said. "We are keeping our eye on that prize. That is our goal.”

Fast forward nearly six months later, and the district now has 64 vacancies — but not for lack of trying. 

The impact of delays

Caitlin McRae recalls an afternoon in December, waiting at the bus stop for her four-year-old daughter with special needs to arrive. She was put on a substitute bus that day, which meant McRae couldn’t track her location like she normally does using the “Here Comes the Bus” app. 

“So I was like, that's fine. I'll just get to the bus stop when I usually do. Wait it out," McRae said. "I'm waiting. And waiting. Nothing has happened.”

School gets out at 2:30 p.m. At 3:45, she texts her daughter’s teacher to say the bus still isn’t there. She texts her again at 4:15. Then at 4:30, she gets a call and learns the bus is in Clemmons, the next town over. 

“I was in a full panic. Having a panic attack," she said. "My neighbors have passed me three or four times coming in and out of the neighborhood. I'm just sitting there, like, sobbing because I don't know where my child is.”

The bus arrived at 4:52 p.m., which means her daughter was on it for nearly two and a half hours. 

That was an especially bad day, but she says delays in the afternoons are pretty common. Sometimes the buses don’t show up to the school until nearly 5 p.m. Sometimes they don’t show up at all. 

On those days, McRae ends up taking an hour off work to pick her daughter up herself. She says she’s lucky she has the flexibility to do that, but she feels for the kids who don’t have that option. 

“If she was getting home at five, it's already basically dark outside. You're going straight into dinner, you're going straight into bedtime," McRae said. "Like I would not be able to spend any one-on-one time with her. That's just absurd.”

Multiple district staff members say they’ve seen students lose their after-school jobs because they can’t arrive to work on time. They also miss out on clubs, sports, and tutoring. 

And if the buses are late in the morning, students have no choice but to miss part of their classes. Staff members say all of that adds up and affects their attitudes toward school and themselves. 

The delays also impact school administrators, who have to stay with the kids until they’ve found a ride. There have even been reports of principals driving students home themselves. 

The shortage of drivers

The bus driver shortage isn’t unique to Forsyth County. 

Guilford County Schools Executive Director of Transportation Faye Crowder-Phillips spoke about the problems they’re experiencing at a recent school board meeting.

“Our vacancies have remained in the 50s," she said. "Even despite our strong recruiting efforts.” 

Durham Public Schools is also facing a major shortage as bus drivers, mechanics, and other classified employees are striking over pay. 

And the issue goes beyond North Carolina. According to research by the Economic Policy Institute, school bus driver employment across the country last year was down 15% compared to 2019. 

In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, Executive Director of Transportation Tisha Davidson says the shortage has led the district to prioritize basic transportation to and from school, over things like after-school activities and field trips. That’s because there are a limited number of employees with Commercial Driver Licenses.

Tisha Davidson

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Executive Director of Transportation Tisha Davidson spoke about the bus driver shortage at a press conference in August 2023. AMY DIAZ/WFDD

“And you know, we have to find that balance because the schools are upset, ‘I can't get my basketball team here because they don't have their CDL renewed.’ Well, I can't get your kids to school, because I don't have a driver with a CDL yet," Davidson said. 

There are actually 32 applicants in various stages of getting their licenses to become drivers for the district. But Davidson says the process for that is challenging, and time-consuming, taking a minimum of 60 days. 

“Now, if the moon doesn't align, and the stars aren't all out at one time, and all those testing positions are backed up, then it can take longer, and it can extend out, you know, 90 days plus," she said. 

Becoming a bus driver

So, what exactly does that process look like? Heather Bolt Mikeal is learning the hard way. 

"Oh my goodness," she said. "It was a lot more than I expected.”

She decided to become an activity bus driver after her kids’ field trips were repeatedly canceled due to the shortage. 

“My daughter is going to be able to go to the zoo. I'll take her to the zoo," Mikeal said. "But there are children that, you know, sometimes might not get out of the county if they don't get these field trips offered to them.”

She applied for the job in October and still has yet to get behind the wheel of a bus. 

First, she had a group interview. Followed by a background check. Then another two-and-a-half-hour onboarding interview, and in the same day, a drug test across town. 

Two weeks later, she had to get a physical that included a test for tuberculosis that requires you to return five days later for the results. It was another couple of months before she was able to start the actual training at the DMV, which is a three-day course with multiple tests. 

“Oh my gosh, it was so nerve-wracking," Mikeal said. "And then especially Tuesday, we learned all about air brakes. I don't even change the oil in my own car.”

The test is the same whether you’re driving a school bus or a tractor-trailer. The mechanics part of the test is one a lot of people struggle with — and one that they don’t really need. 

Long-haul truckers need to do their own repairs, but school bus drivers have teams of mechanics for that. 

Mikeal says the tests weren’t easy, and they were only offered in English. A couple of people in her class who weren’t native English speakers ended up failing the written portion, after having no testing accommodations. 

When Mikeal passed, she learned she needed to get another physical — this time through the Department of Transportation. 

“If your neck is thicker than 16 inches, then you have to do a sleep apnea test," Mikeal said. "So of course, I ran right my home and measured my neck.”

That test could take another 30 to 45 days. Once she's done with her physical, she’ll need to go to the DMV on her own, apply for her permit, and then take another drug test. 

Next up is four consecutive days of behind-the-wheel training — but the only openings are weeks from now. Once she completes that, she can finally apply for her license at the DMV. But by then, the whole process will have taken her at least five months and cost her roughly $350. 

“If you're working a low-income job, and you're trying to get this, which is another, you know, low-income paid job, how do you take the time off to get this job?” she said.

It wasn’t always this hard to become a bus driver, according to Wendell Burton in Davie County. 

He actually started driving school buses in 1972, when he was in 10th grade. Back then he was told he could drive a bus as long as he could drive a car — and it would get him out of gym class. 

He decided to start back up a few years ago after seeing the need. It took him nine months to complete all of the requirements and start working. 

“And I'm gonna be honest, if I had to do this again, I would never do it," Burton said. "It was horrible.”

Burton says he actually likes being a bus driver, but it’s not easy. 

“I'm going 45 miles an hour, and I'm looking in a mirror that’s about the size of the mirror in your car and trying to maintain 60 kids by myself," Burton said. 

It’s a hard job. It’s hard to get the job. And there isn’t a whole lot of incentive with starting pay hovering around $15 an hour. 

The school boards in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County and Guilford County both recently approved pay raises for transportation staff to address that. But officials say changes need to happen at the state level. 

Until then, some families will have to take their chances on the buses. 

Sixth graders August Ziesel and Jackson Lee live in the same neighborhood. One Friday morning, they rode the bus together. The sun wasn’t up yet, and it was about 40 degrees as they walked to their stop. 

They typically entertain themselves while they wait by making up games and playing cards. And if the bus is really late, they can usually find a ride with one of their parents. But they’re the lucky ones. 

“Hopefully you have someone who can pick you up," Jackson said. "Because if you don't, I'm sorry about that." 

“I'm sorry my friend," August added. 

The kids without another ride will be stuck, waiting at their stop for the bus, whatever time it comes. 

Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.

300x250 Ad

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.