There has been a lot of discussion about school bus service here in Fayette County, and I feel the need to stand up for my fellow bus drivers and monitors because while not everything I’ve read about the driver shortage has been critical of us, enough has to make me feel the need to speak out. I’ve heard about how some of us are lazy. I’ve heard about how “easy” this job is. Let me give you a glimpse of our job and you can draw your own conclusion as to why there is a shortage.
First of all, the pay isn’t as good as some make it sound, especially considering you have to have a CDL license. You’re only guaranteed six hours a day. If COVID puts a stop to things like field trips and sporting events, 30 hours a week may be all you’re going to get for the foreseeable future. Couple that with the fact that a percentage of your check is going to be taken out in order for you to receive pay over the summer, and you’re really not making very much. A split schedule means it’s going to be very difficult to find a suitable supplemental job to make up the hours needed to make enough to live on. Hence, most people just don’t see this profession as a viable option to support yourself and/or a family.
Now, let’s talk about working conditions. Other than the smaller buses that transport our students with special needs, there is no air conditioning on the school buses. In the driver’s seat, you are also basically sitting on top of the bus’s engine, which is quite large and gives off a shocking amount of heat. Last week, in the August heat, I brought a thermometer to see just how hot it gets in my seat. 118 degrees. The back of the bus, while not having to sit on an engine, was still 106 degrees. At the end of my shift, literally every stitch of clothing on my body is soaked with sweat.
Your average school bus is about 35 ft long and weighs about 33,000 pounds. Needless to say, it takes skill to navigate and can be highly stressful, especially in a busy town like ours. You would think other drivers on the road would be extra courteous and give you plenty of room, given the precious cargo you have on board. You would be completely wrong. People will speed around you, cut you off and nearly run you off the road to avoid having to be behind the school bus. People run the stop arm every single day. It’s there for a reason, people. If that stop arm is out, children are loading or unloading. Whatever your hurry is, it’s not worth a child being seriously injured or worse.
Now imagine navigating this thing around town with 50-60 loud and restless human beings on board, not all of which think very highly of you or what you have to say. You might just be shocked at some of the abuses that bus drivers and monitors have suffered at the hands of Lexington’s youth. We have all been cussed out. By students and by parents. This happens frequently and usually in response to rules and regulations that are designed to keep everyone safe, such as requiring that you bring an ID card in order to get a kindergartener off the bus. I know drivers that have been spit on and kicked. Some have been punched and assaulted bad enough to require medical attention. Most driver’s routes are jammed so tight these days, you don’t have time to stop and use the restroom, or the next children you’re due to pick up will be standing at the bus stop waiting for you. You put any normal human being under conditions like these, and you are asking for mistakes to be made. Mistakes in this line of work can not only cost you your job, but could leave you criminally liable. Does this seem worth wages comparable to what cashiers are making at department stores right now? It is no wonder why there is a shortage of drivers and monitors.
Rest assured, those of us who are left, are doing it because we care about the kids. In our hearts and minds, there isn’t a more worthwhile profession. We just want to get these kids to school safely and we’ll protect them like our own to get them there. For every kid or parent that disrespects you, there is a kindergartner who is so excited for school that they want to hug you or there is a high schooler that gives you a fist bump and a thank you. For every driver that cuts you off, there is a student’s younger sibling that stands on the porch with a look of wonder and longing on their little face, that waves excitedly as you go by every morning. This job is not for everybody. This is the absolute hardest “easy” job I’ve ever seen. Some days I go home smiling ear to ear and some days I go home nearly in tears. If this sounds like a good fit for you, please go to the FCPS website and apply. You are needed. FCPS, please make it fair and financially feasible for them to do so.
James Vest is a driver with the Fayette County Public Schools.