Schools across the country are facing a bus driver shortage. Jackson County is one of them.
RIPLEY — Rich Casto is the last line of defense when it comes to filling in for a bus driver. Before him, 15 part-time substitutes and seven mechanics are called.
Casto drove buses for 12 years before becoming the county's director of transportation. In previous years he'd fill in for a driver about eight times a year. With only seven weeks into the 2020-21 academic year, Casto has already driven four routes.
Schools across the country are facing bus driver shortages, even here in Jackson County. While Jackson doesn't have a shortage of full-time bus drivers, it has a lack of substitutes.
"It's daunting," Casto said. "You're pulled already in different directions, but that's just a whole other thing. When I'm on the road, and I'm behind the wheel the work that I have to do doesn't go anywhere else."
The issue is two-fold in Jackson County. Casto said COVID quarantines have caused drivers to call out more often, and the applicant pool for subs is minuscule. There are 53 full-time drivers, one for each route, and 15 substitutes — Casto likes to have at least 20.
Some schools felt the shortage of drivers last year. Jackson County didn't, and now Casto's phone is ringing more often than ever trying to find a sub.
Beating the sun
Bus drivers in Jackson County start their day before the sun rises. They start pouring into the garage around 6 a.m., begin their pre-trip checks at 6:15 and are on their routes by 6:30.
Every time before the driver begins a route they must complete a pre-trip check where they use a tablet to update the condition of their vehicle. They have to check everything from the lights to the numbers and letters on the side to make sure they aren't peeling.
Bus drivers work a split shift. Usually, they park their buses by 8 a.m. and are back at it by 2 p.m. with their day ending around 5 p.m. This allows people to run personal errands during the day, Casto said.
A two-month training is required for drivers. All applicants are required to obtain a Class B Commercial Driver's License. This is a permit that allows an individual to operate a single vehicle not attached to a trailer that weighs more than 26,000 pounds.
There's an out-of-pocket cost to becoming a driver. The training, which is held twice a year, costs around $350, which is equivalent to more than three days work for a sub. After running 15 routes, the Board of Education will refund the $350.
When someone begins driving, they start off as a substitute. With no experience, Jackson Schools pays $110 a day for someone to run a morning and afternoon route.
All applicants must be at least 21 years old and have a driver's license for at least three years before applying. Applications can be picked up in person at the transportation office located next to the bus garage on Church Street in Ripley, or online.
In an August survey by the National Association for Pupil Transportation, 50% of respondents indicated that pay is a "major factor" that's hurting districts across the U.S., 45% of respondents said the time it takes to get a Commercial Driver's License is a barrier.
Despite those findings, Casto said being a bus driver is one of the "best-kept secrets" for jobs.
"We have a great, great group of people," Casto said. "From the outside looking in, everybody thinks that, 'I would want to do this, I'd be scared to death.' It's nowhere near what you think it is."
Casto likes to say he's an Army recruiter. If someone talks to him long enough, he'll sign them up as a sub. And for the time being, Casto tries to recruit every day.
— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.