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Why Utah school districts are struggling to keep the wheels on the bus going round and round

A student driver and instructor navigate a bus around cones in a parking lot at a Canyon School District building in Sandy on Monday, July 19, 2021. From bus drivers to school nutrition workers, districts are facing challenges filling critical support positions amid a post-pandemic labor shortage. Canyons School District is offering $21 to lure qualified employees.
A student driver and instructor navigate a bus around cones in a parking lot at a Canyon School District building in Sandy on Monday, July 19, 2021. From bus drivers to school nutrition workers, districts are facing challenges filling critical support positions amid a post-pandemic labor shortage. Canyons School District is offering $21 to lure qualified employees.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In the parking lot of a school in Sandy, part of the Canyons School District, a trainee is learning the finer points of maneuvering and parking a school bus.

The driver zigzags through traffic cones on the makeshift course, preparing to drive a bus this fall. Yes, the job entails safely delivering dozens of students to and from school, but bus drivers tend to play an even larger role in students’ lives, said Everett Perry, Canyons District’s human resources administrator over education support professionals.

“You’re the first face they see when they leave home. ... You can set the whole mood for the day of how well they’ll learn just by the influence you have,” Perry said.

Perry said workers have their pick of jobs now that Utah’s unemployment rate has dipped below 3%, so Canyons School District, among others along the Wasatch Front, are working hard to compete for prospects.

Canyons District needs about 30 bus drivers, 34 kitchen workers, 23 cashiers and 22 classroom aides.

The district is offering more than $21.19 an hour for bus drivers.

Benefits are available for classroom assistants who work 35 hours a week, Perry said.

“Those kind of jobs are fun because the parent who doesn’t want to work evenings, weekends, can be with their kids. It’s like the perfect job. They can go to school, drop the kids off, go to work, work until midday, get off work and they’re off before the kids are even off,” he said.

Moreover, they have the same school holidays and breaks as their children, plus summers off.

A sign offers $21.19 per hour for school bus drivers.
A “Bus Drivers Wanted” sign is pictured at a Canyon School District building in Sandy on Monday, July 19, 2021. From bus drivers to school nutrition workers, districts are facing challenges filling critical support positions amid a post-pandemic labor shortage. Canyons School District is offering $21 to lure qualified employees.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

As for bus drivers, Canyons District transportation director Jeremy Wardle said many people are surprised how much they enjoy the job once they settle into position.

“A lot of our bus drivers come to transportation thinking ‘Oh, I’ll give it a try’ and they end up loving it. Twenty or 30 years later they’re still here because ... they love their interaction with the kids. Some of them want to come back even after they’ve retired just to say ‘Hi’ to their kids they’ve driven. They get attached to them,” he said.

This year’s vacancies are unusually high because of retirements, some people staying on the sidelines due to COVID-19, or others who are were retired from other careers when they became bus drivers and have determined “that they really like being retired and not having to get up early, especially in the cold winter,” Wardle said.

Granite School District needs six to 10 contract drivers and is also offering $21 an hour, medical benefits and training, which includes helping people obtain their commercial driver’s license, spokesman Ben Horsley told KSL NewsRadio’s “Dave & Dujanovic.”

Horsley said he is studying the commercial driver’s license manual himself and plans to take a medical exam to determine if he is eligible to undergo training and licensure to drive a school bus in the event of an emergency or severe shortage of drivers.

“I hope I never have to use this. This is really intended only for an emergency situation where we might have need so we’ll see how it goes,” he said.

The shortage of certified teachers prior to the pandemic seems to have abated, but among licensed professional positions, the school district is laboring to fill school psychologist jobs, Horsley said.

Davis School District also needs school bus drivers and school nutrition workers, said spokesman Christopher Williams.

“We have 30 slots for bus drivers and 40 slots for cafeteria workers,” Williams said, although it was unclear if the openings were for regular or substitute positions.

Meanwhile, Jordan School District has 12 openings for nutrition services workers, said spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf.

“We are always hiring bus drivers so nothing has changed there. We are now paying bus drivers $21 an hour, which has helped in recruitment,” she said.