JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A photo sent to News4Jax shows Duval County Public Schools students packed into a bus on Aug. 18, sitting three to a seat with some even sitting in the aisle.
The photo was concerning to parents but not surprising to Rebecca Cardona, a representative for Teamsters Local 512, the union representing the school bus drivers in Duval County.
“Typically speaking, those students should really only be seated two to a seat. However, capacity on the bus is 77. I can tell you that the carriers are doing the very best that they can with a driver shortage and the drivers, as well, with the increased capacity on the buses because of doubling, sometimes tripling,” Cardona said.
Nearly 25,000 DCPS students are registered to ride the bus, but Cardona said that just because a student isn’t registered doesn’t mean they get left at the bus stop. She said drivers are transporting many unregistered students, adding to the strain on the routes.
“So the driver shortage in Duval County and nationwide, in the school bus industry, is not a new thing. However, the level of shortage is absolutely something that we’ve never seen before,” Cardona said.
The main issue, Cardona said, is the nature of the bus driver’s job. It’s part-time, and the starting wage is low compared to other industries. Also, it’s not a year-round job. The coronavirus pandemic has made things worse, with many drivers opting not to risk the exposure from hundreds of children a day.
Cardona said it’s been a stressful year for drivers, with frequent delays in the first couple of weeks, prompting the school district to launch a website to communicate information about bus backups.
“Please be patient with these drivers. They really do have the care of your children at the forefront in transporting the children of Duval County,” Cardona said. “They’re doing the best they can.”
Cardona added that the driver shortage is to the point that even though Baldwin Middle-Senior High and Fletcher Middle schools temporarily shifted to online learning, those drivers will likely not be out of work because they’ll be able to go alleviate the stress on other routes for those days.
News4Jax has asked for the number of employee vacancies at the local bus contractors -- Durham School Services and Student Transportation of America -- but had not received a response as of publication.