School districts challenged to fill vital need for bus drivers

Transportation leaders say the real challenge is working around the driver shortage.
Published: Aug. 1, 2022 at 10:42 PM CDT
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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - The wheels on the bus go round and round, and so does the school bus driver shortage in Rockford.

Catina Barnett has been a Rockford school bus driver for more than 24 years. For her, making the wheels turn day in and day out amidst the ongoing driver shortage is a challenge worth accepting. She’ll do whatever it takes to get the kids from place to place.

“It’s become almost a norm, but we bind together and make it work,” said Barnett. “We transport 20,000 plus kids everyday.”

Last year, the lack of drivers forced the school district to cancel certain routes and come up with alternative courses.

“We try to plan in advance, but there are days where we just don’t know,” said RPS 205 Transportation Director Michael Slife. “If we have have too many people call in and cancel a route, it’s just not knowing.”

Both Slife and Barnett say the real challenge isn’t driving the bus, it’s recruiting people to get behind the wheel.

“If you can drive a Honda Civic, you can drive a bus,” said Barnett.

I decided to put the statement to the test. A few bumps in the road in the beginning, but my confidence making wide turns grew. It was just a small dive into the training that Slife says is paid for by the district on top of sign-on bonuses and many other amenities RPS 205 is offering to get more potential drivers on board.

“A committee is doing movies on Fridays kind of between the routes, you know, popcorn, picking a movie,” said Slife. “Just kind of different ideas.”

One thing my test drive didn’t include is what Barnett says is the best part of her job. That’s bringing smiles to students in the beginning and end of their days.

“We’re there second moms, were the second dads,” said Barnett. “Even if they just need someone to talk to; we are there.”

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