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Regional bus driver shortage impacts entire school system operations

At least half of the schools in East Tennessee are short on bus drivers. Nearly all districts are hiring.

GRAINGER COUNTY, Tenn. — At least half of the schools in East Tennessee are in need of bus drivers. Both substitutes and contracted drivers are in high demand.

"Teaching kids is what everybody thinks about when they think about school... But, before you can teach them, you have to get them there," said Tony Ogle with Sevier County School District.

Bus drivers are a critical part of a school day's flow.

"Our bus drivers have a great responsibility," said Dr. James Atkins, the Superintendent for the Grainger County School District. 

However, very few people are applying for the positions.

"It's hard to get folks to come into those positions. And sometimes they just don't know that we have them available," Ogle said.

In order to be a school bus driver in the State of Tennessee, a person must do the following:

  • Be over the age of 25
  • Pass a background check
  • Complete a school bus driver safety program
  • Have at least five years of consecutive driving experience
  • Obtain a Commercial Driver's License

According to Ogle, these qualifications help ensure the kids are seated with an experienced driver. However, the qualifications often make it more difficult to fill bus driver positions than it is to fill cafeteria or janitorial positions.

The Grainger County School District has a total of 53 bus drivers. Nine of those drivers act as substitutes.

"That includes all of our maintenance drivers. It also includes three individuals here at central office that have their CDL endorsement," Atkins said.

These 53 drivers are responsible for the transportation of more than 3,500 kids. If every student rode the bus, that would be 66 students per school bus.

"There's been times over the last two weeks that we have had every driver driving," Atkins said.

On Friday, multiple drivers were either out sick with COVID-19 or on vacation. With no substitute drivers to fill in, the whole school system shut down for the day.

RELATED: Grainger Co. Schools closes due to lack of bus drivers and substitutes, saying many caught COVID-19

"I had to call school law simply because a lack of substitute bus drivers," Atkins said.

The school did reopen on Monday when some of the absent drivers were able to work again.

This situation was frustrating to Atkins. He said bus routes are the first step to being able to educate the kids in the district.

"That's a critical aspect of getting our students to school. That's where it all starts," Atkins said.

Although Grainger County's situation was extreme on Friday, other school districts are expressing the same concerns. 

"Bus drivers and cafeteria workers are two critical areas where we are already experiencing some shortages. We are having to shift some personnel around and make special plans to pick up the slack with those," Ogle said.

Cumberland, Fentress, Scott, Anderson, Loudon, Monroe, Blount, Jefferson and Hamblen Counties also reported bus driver shortages. 

An announcement from our Transportation Dept: Due to a bus driver shortage at one of our contractors', Bus 10A riders...

Posted by Monroe County Schools on Sunday, August 29, 2021

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