Safety and a good disposition a big part of the job.
BLOOMINGTON — Three weeks from the start of the school year,
Central Illinois schools say their bus services are ready, but they still need more drivers.
As of this week, District 87 is short 12 drivers despite heavy recruiting efforts, which include about 300 yard signs calling for drivers, Reilly said.
Yard signs across the Twin Cities advertise for school bus drivers on Thursday. As the first day of school looms ever closer, school bus companies are working hard to find drivers for routes.
A shortage of bus drivers in Central Illinois is nothing new, but like many other industries, school officials say the COVID-19 pandemic compounded the problem.
“We historically have had a difficult time finding drivers and sub drivers and bus aides, but things have gotten worse over the past year,” said Laura O’Donnell,
superintendent for Olympia schools.
Jeff Gordon, District 87’s contract manager at Illinois Central School Bus, said he hasn’t seen anything like this in his 27 years working in school transportation.
“It’s not unique to bus drivers, but certainly that’s a concern as we head into the start of the year,” Reilly said.
Low wages and raised unemployment benefits have left several industries across Illinois and the country facing similar staffing concerns.
A school bus parked at Bloomington High School advertises for school bus drivers on Thursday. As the first day of school looms ever closer, school bus companies are working hard to find drivers for routes.
Despite a small student population, Olympia, which is based in Stanford, has a significant rural area, making bus routes an important part of the school year preparations.
O’Donnell said the district is fully staffed with bus drivers for fall, but the number of substitute drivers is limited.
Sorrey said their recruitment initiatives this summer were “unusual for a transportation unit.” They included a community carnival event that brought in 16 applicants and participation in the Miller Park Pride Parade, bringing 22 interested drivers.
Dozens of school buses are parked at First Student in north Normal on Thursday. School bus companies are trying to find drivers to fill all of the available routes across Central Illinois.
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The national average number of bus drivers is down 12%, Sorrey said. Based on last year’s routes, First Student needs to have about 147 drivers, which includes having 10% more than what’s needed for the core routes as substitutes.
“We are missing 5% extra, so I already have 5% more than I need, so we’re doing pretty good,” Sorrey said.
Heyworth schools have also noticed a driver shortage in recent years, and
Superintendent Lisa Taylor said they are considering combining two routes to make sure they have enough drivers.
“Our transportation director drives a route along with our retired director,” she said. “It would be great to have four or five (more) drivers, especially with activities expected to return to normal.”
LeRoy Superintendent Gary Tipsory said they’re staffed, but don’t have any substitutes so far.
“Anytime we fall short or someone is sick, we have to pull staff, who have a bus license, from another duty,” he said.
A school bus takes to the route outside First Student on Warehouse Road in North Normal on Thursday.
Reilly also said given District 87’s current shortage, Illinois Central will have to pull people who would normally be working in the facility “and not really slated and scheduled to be a driver” to cover routes.
“We would love to have members of the community who would be interested in supporting schools by being a bus driver — we’d love to have people reach out to Illinois Central and apply,” he said.
Reilly said the starting rate for their drivers is $17.48 and Gordon is “working to try to improve that.”
“Getting a very competitive pay would help,” Reilly said.
Bus companies, including Illinois Central, typically require bus driver applicants to have a CDL or be able to obtain the license, and new drivers are trained upon hire.
Recent updates to COVID mitigations removed the capacity limits for school buses. Previously only 50 students were allowed to ride at one time.
Reilly said he anticipates the number of students on buses to return to pre-pandemic levels, though he expects some parents of students who would typically ride the bus will instead provide their own transportation.
Masks will be required for all students and staff on school buses, as that falls under public transportation, which maintains a mask mandate in Illinois.
Flags flutter in the breeze as Central Illinois School Bus, 1103 1/2 E. Croxton Ave., advertises for school bus drivers on Thursday. Filling available positions has always been an issue for school bus companies, but the pandemic has created even greater recruiting problems.
Photos: Surviving COVID in central Illinois Schools
The end of school, for now
Parkside Junior High School students in Unit 5 leave classes Friday, March 13, 2020, with an uncertainty of when classes will meet. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has ordered all schools statewide be closed until May 1 to minimize the spread of coronavirus.
Sugar Creek Elementary School Principal Kristina Peifer, right, says farewell Tuesday, March 17, 2020, to Rose Edwards, 9, a Sugar Creek fourth-grader, who picked up packaged lunches for her brothers and sisters as Unit 5 food service workers Christina Walter, left, and Nicky McFalls package meals at the school in Normal.
Supplying schoolchildren’s needs
Andy Shelby, assistant principal at Oakdale Elementary School in Normal, disinfects food products, books and table surfaces Friday, April 17, 2020, as the school gave out school supplies, food and study guides to parents during the coronavirus stay-at-home order. Shelby and the school’s custodians ran the event that is likely to be repeated at a later time. Donations came from the school’s Promise Council and others.
Oakdale Elementary School custodians Joe Altieri, left, and Paul Toca, center, hand out lesson plans to Amber Shepherd on Friday, April 17, 2020, at the school in Normal.
The lost year
Bloomington High School seniors Andre Washington, left, and Corinna Jones, both 18, talk in the high school parking lot Friday, April 17, 2020, as the lights were turned on at the school’s Fred Carlton Field. Lights were turned on at high school fields across Illinois after the IHSA called for schools to honor their athletes who would not get to play this spring season as well others who were affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Jones will miss her senior season playing softball for the Raiders.
Matthew Panopio, 18, valedictorian of the 2020 class at Central Catholic High School, reacts as a convoy of teachers and administrators surprised him with a parade past his home on May 7, 2020. With the COVID-19 pandemic still a concern this spring, area schools have had to find creative ways to recognize their graduates while maintaining health and state guidelines.
Katie Turner, a school counselor at Central Catholic High School, decorates her vehicle as a convoy of teachers and administrators surprise the school’s top graduates, Thursday, May 7, 2020.
Congrats Kristin and Matthew
Teachers and administrators celebrated Matthew Panopio, 18, valedictorian of the 2020 class at Central Catholic High School, as they surprised him with a parade past his home in east Bloomington Thursday, May 7, 2020. They also drove past the home of salutatorian Kristin Vose.
Andy Shelby, Oakdale Elementary School assistant principal, delivers items from students’ desks to parents as they drove up to the school Tuesday, May 26, 2020.
The contents of their desks
Oakdale Elementary School custodian Paul Toca and school secretary Julie Fink collected items from students’ desks as parents drove up to pick up the items at the close of the school year, Tuesday. Donations of food and other items given to students were coordinated by the school’s promise council.
Meals for home
McLean County Unit 5 employees load meals for students onto nine buses Wednesday, May 27, 2020, at Normal Community West High School as the district celebrated a milestone: 100,000 meals prepared and distributed to families since the pandemic closed the schools in mid-March.
Cooks of mercy
McLean County Unit 5 cooks Lena Eberding, left, and Tami Hagglund pack lunches for students Wednesday, May 27, 2020, at Normal Community West High School.
Dressing for success
Julie Jones, chairperson of the Illinois State University Board of Trustees, left, and Aondover Tarhule, university vice president for academic affairs and provost, listened to President Larry Dietz talk about the school’s plans to reopen this fall during a news conference July 9 at ISU’s Brown Ballroom in Normal.
Wear a mask!
Dr. Samina Yousuf, right, a pediatrician with OSF Multispecialty Services-Bloomington Pediatrics, talks with 12-year-old Aayan Ahmed of Normal about the importance of wearing a mask and washing his hands to combat COVID-19 as he prepares to return to school during his appointment in her Bloomington office.
Normal Community West High School senior Caitlin Halihan, 17, learned how to drive a manual transmission Mazda Miata in the school parking lot as her friend, West graduate Manuel Valenzuela, 18, gave her a thumbs up on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2020.
Back to school, back to school …
Illinois Wesleyan University students Landry Elliott, Kailee Piwowarczyk, Cassandra Jones and Bridget O’Malley were so happy to be back at school that they climbed a tree for a group photo being taken by a friend on the quad during the first day of classes, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.
Getting equipped for school
Madeline Burch, 5, a kindergartner, and her father, Brent, both of Normal, stopped by Parkside Elementary School, 1900 W. College Ave. in Normal, to pick up a tablet Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, for the beginning of school. The school’s Penguin Pickup and Picture Day provided about 150 laptops or tablets for students, school photos, supplies and even frozen fruit pops to begin the year for online learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brooklyn Gerke, 8, her brothers, Gabriel Harris, 8, and Cater Gerke, 5, stood with their mother, Sarah Harris, as they and other parents and students lined up outside Parkside Elementary School, 1900 W. College Ave. in Normal, to pick up their computers and tablets for the beginning of school, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.
Parkside Elementary School principal Chris Ellis handed out a frozen fruit pop to Kane Franzen, as his family picked up their computers and tablets for the beginning of school, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.
Illinois Wesleyan University professor Mike Theune presented student speakers who appealed for preservation of the humanities at the school during a public rally under a large tent on the quad Monday, Aug. 31, 2020.
Won’t miss a note
Savannah Sleevar, 17, a Bloomington High School senior, looks over sheet music as she practices on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, at her home. Musicians found ways to keep up their tempo despite the virus.
Another kind of test
An Illinois State University student leaves the school’s new temporary COVID-19 testing facility near Watterson Towers on Sept. 28.
Fashion for the times
Illinois Wesleyan University sophomore Alex Seehuus, a computer sciences major from Bloomington, twirls her “Veiled Hat” entry in the school’s COVID
Runaway Fashion Show on Ames Plaza, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Some 21 2D design students entered the fashion show that intended to showcase whimsical creations inspired by social distancing in the time of the coronavirus.
Creating art with BCAI
Tiahna Abbott, left, and Ty-Kayla Abbott use spay paint cans to create a work of art under the direction of local artist “Famous Doug” during the Rhythm & Spray Paint BCAI informational event Saturday at Franklin Park, Bloomington. The event is sponsored by BCAI-Breaking Chains & Advancing Increase School of Arts. The event also will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 10.
Back to class, for a while
Heyworth High School civics teacher Ryan Lawler helps his students prepare a prediction map for the 2020 Presidential Electoral College results during his class, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020.
Learning goes on
Heyworth High School seniors Brock Carlton, 18, Logan Wills, 17, and Noah Penry, 17, prepare scripts while making a podcast about voter preferences during teacher Ryan Lawler’s civics class, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020.
Back to school
Grove Elementary School music teacher Gabe Myers, left, welcomes Laila Abouelmagd, 5, to kindergarten, as her grandmother, Dolores Callahan, and father, Mohamed Abouelmagd unload her school supplies, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. Students toted their school supplies from their parents’ parked cars to their classrooms as parents were not allowed to leave the parking lot due to the coronavirus.
A new world
Grove Elementary School Principal Sarah Edwards, left, directs traffic as Maria Hullinger delivers her daughter, Ava, 7, a second grader, and Annabel Gardner, 5, a kindergartner, for the first day of in-person school, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
Students arrived at Grove Elementary School for the first day of classes, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
Grove Elementary School kindergarten student Braden Beck, 5, said good morning to his teacher, Emily Kauten, on the first day of classes, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. Students were returning to school for the first day of classes during the pandemic.
Looking for a few good drivers
Safety coordinator Jason Thorp fills a tank at Illinois Central School Bus in Bloomington on Thursday.
With many teachers opting out of returning to the classroom because of the coronavirus, schools around the U.S. are working to find replacements.
Special Education teacher Dustin Underwood substitutes for a culinary arts teacher as Unit 5 superintendent Kristen Kendrick-Weikle stops by at Normal Community West High School on Thursday. Coronavirus has complicated l
ong-running struggles to find substitute teachers in many areas.
Holding down the fort
Special Education teacher Dustin Underwood stands under a cooking demonstration mirror as he substitutes for a culinary arts teacher during the pandemic at Normal Community West High School Thursday.
One last test
Allison Everidge, an Illinois Wesleyan University sophomore psychology, biology and premed major from Fishers, Indiana, studies for exams on Tuesday. IWU students will have a shortened school year as the university attempts to lessen exposure to COVID-19.
Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.
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