First grader Levi Lang takes the bus to Dewey Elementary School and says his regular bus driver is always on time. But there are some mornings, his father Paul Lang says, when “after waiting for five minutes we kind of know, OK, today’s gonna be a sub day. Which usually means we’re waiting for a bit.”

“Sometimes there’s some tears but he eventually gets on the bus and he gets to school,” Lang said. Levi chimed in, “It’s just frustrating.”

Lang said District 65’s transportation program “for the most part, works really well,” but that they have waited up to 35 or 40 minutes for Levi’s bus.

Levi, a charming conversationalist who said he knows “everybody on the bus,” recalled a problem on the way home with one substitute driver in particular: “I think she was doing the whole route, actually, all the way backwards. I was the last one to get off the bus.” 

When the regular bus driver is absent, Lang said, “you never really know if it’s because of labor shortages or just drivers aren’t trained on the routes, but it just seems to kind of fall apart.”

More late routes this year

The Langs’ experience is not unique; Lou Gatta, Transportation Director at Evanston/Skokie School District District 65, has reported an ongoing increase in the number of late bus routes this year. A memo by Gatta included in agenda documents for the November 10 meeting of the Personnel, Buildings & Grounds, and Finance Committee said that pre-pandemic, monthly instances of bus tardiness were all in single digits – five in August 2019 and seven in both September and October 2019, for example.

This year began with only five late routes in August, but that quickly rose to 10 in September and 17 in October. And those statistics only reflect instances when a bus arrives late to school and Positive Connections is deemed at fault, such as with a mechanical breakdown or staffing issue.

In addition, the number of bus routes decreased from 171 in 2019 to 154 in 2021, so the percentage of late routes has seen a noteworthy increase. The bus company pays a $100 penalty to the district each time a bus route is late.

A person who answered the phone November 22 at Positive Connections said the company had no comment on the number of late routes this year. 

Positive Connections is one of five companies that transport District 65 students. (Photo by Bessie Mbadugha)

Earlier in the year, at the September 27 District 65 School Board meeting, Gatta said that given the ongoing nationwide shortage of school bus drivers, which would be further exacerbated by the reopening of schools, last year’s strategy of bringing in 10 drivers from Milwaukee would not be an option this year. He said that the Transportation Department has worked “to proactively secure more companies” to staff the buses. 

“We are working with five companies now to help transport all of our students,” Gatta said. “And that basically puts us in a much better position than a lot of other districts, but there are still significant challenges.” 

District 65’s diverse fleet includes 41 Positive Connections big yellow school buses and four from Compass Transportation, with an additional eight pre-K buses from the two companies; two BriteLift buses for in-district and out-of-district special-education routes plus 10 vans and over 40 cars and taxis for special-education transportation from Zum and 303 Taxi.

National driver shortage

Citing examples including Chicago Public Schools paying families a $1,000 stipend to not ride the bus, Massachusetts National Guard members being called on to drive buses and school cancellations due to transportation problems, Gatta asserted that “it’s an extremely challenging environment, to say the least.” And he did not anticipate that it would ease up; “if anything it’s going to become more difficult.”

Among the challenges is the fact that drivers are in high demand and the supply pool is limited. Gatta noted “significant headwinds” as drivers are being recruited by companies such as Amazon and FedEx, with wage competitions occurring. 

In some cases, drivers are choosing multiple employment options, as is the case with a substitute driver who, according to young Levi Lang, also “Ubers and does Amazon.” 

Levi suggested that substitute bus drivers should be given GPS directions, and his father agreed, noting that the technology exists to help bus drivers who may be unfamiliar with routes. 

“No one that drives an Uber or delivering food necessarily knows the route, they’re just directed,” his father Paul said. “And it seems like we could apply that here.”

District 65 statistics show that the number of late bus routes is on the rise. (Photo by Bessie Mbadugha) Credit: Bessie Mbadugha

Complications from consolidating routes

Gatta reported to the School Board September 27 that one of the strategies implemented to alleviate the driver shortage was to look at “schools that have multiple routes, but are able to be on one bus” and consolidate routes. Another was to have buses run multiple routes a day, such that “every one of our routes are doing an early school, and then they’re doing a later-starting school.”

He said that this unfortunately leads to a domino effect if “any little change” happens on the route, as there are no minutes to spare. 

For his return trip home, Levi said that his bus driver “usually takes the kids to [the McGaw YMCA] first and then we wait at Dewey until she comes back … which is usually like a five-minute drive. And then she drops them off, she comes back and picks us up. Because that’s just a lot of kids to put on the bus.” He said that after the YMCA drop off, there is plenty of space on the bus. “You can fit three people [in a seat row] but usually we only do two.” 

Levi’s outgoing and friendly personality happens to be well-matched to his assigned seat, as he added with a smile, “I get to talk to really everybody, and everybody can hear me because I sit right exactly in the middle.”

Communication woes

The beginning of the school year was marred by technology snafus involving the district’s transfer from the Tyler SISK12 student information system to PowerSchool. Gatta stated that while waiting for Blackboard and PowerSchool to be implemented, he developed “a work-around that was able to take emails of riders and send emails out to individual routes.” But he admitted that not every email is received, and that texting would be easier and quicker. 

The Lang family’s system for knowing when the bus will be late is to wait for a certain amount of time, “and once we get outside the window, then I usually call the D65 bus,” Lang said. But “it would be nice if there was some type of notice as to when the bus is gonna be there.”

At times the bus is delayed on the return trip; to stay updated on Levi’s homeward progress, Lang and his wife Andrea put Apple Air Tags to good use, and as Levi said, “wherever I go, my mom and dad can track me.”

Lang said the tracking devices are a good tool for the bus. “It seems like we have technology that would allow some parental anxiety to kind of go away,” he said.

“We’ve tried to solve a bit of that with the tags,” he added. “But between text notices or GPS notices, it seems like, you know, something can be done there.”

First grader Levi Lang says “It’s just frustrating” when a substitute driver means his bus to Dewey Elementary School is late. (Courtesy Paul Lang)

One anxiety-inducing experience for the Lang family occurred last year, when Levi’s bus was late and he walked into school without being checked in. At around noon, his parents were shocked to receive a message saying that Levi was absent. “That was about a 10-15 minute scare, but it got sorted,” said Lang. Thankfully, Levi was unaware that he was presumed missing. But he said he later learned that a friend’s family got a similar call.

This year, Levi continued, “We have this person on our bus in case our bus is late. She has a tag that she can … scan to take us into Dewey.” Lang said that he is happy that an aide is now on the bus. Levi described his check-in process, which includes getting in a line to have his temperature checked. The line moves quickly, according to Levi, and the longest he has had to wait has been two minutes. “On rainy days, they probably try to check in people as fast as they can move their hands!” he said.

To ensure that everyone is on the correct bus to return home, Levi said that “Ms. Zina” escorts him and his fellow bus riders to their appropriate buses, where their names, bus and seat numbers are confirmed before they board.

Ms. Zina, Levi shared, is “in charge of all the busers to get to their buses, and then the bus drivers take it from there!”

Bessie Mbadugha

Bessie N. A. Mbadugha took a hiatus from her previous life as a Chemistry professor to devote more time to her family, and became an active leader in numerous community initiatives in Hillsborough, North...