The Waterloo School District is gradually returning to pre-pandemic normalcy, but one aspect of the education process continues to feel the effects of the novel coronavirus — transportation.
Cynthia French, contract manager at the Illinois Central School Bus garage in Waterloo, said she remains down about 20-25 percent of her normal workforce since the pandemic began.
“We usually have some standby drivers, but we don’t have those,” French said. “We have four drivers who are driving for us who drive at one of our sister locations up near Chicago. And that still doesn’t give us any bench strength.”
“Every day when we stack our cards up the night before, if anything changes with one phone call of somebody whose children are sick or has a family emergency, our house of cards starts falling again and we have to start all over again,” French concluded.
Waterloo Superintendent of Schools Brian Charron also highlighted the strain this shortage puts on the district.
“It’s a critical issue for us,” he said. “This year has been complicated beyond what’s imaginable, and this is just one of those details associated with that.”
Charron said districts across the state are having a bus driver shortage.
French said there were a few reasons for that, including drivers being out for personal reasons and because of pandemic safety.
She said some are also choosing not to work this part-time job because they can make more with unemployment benefits that were raised because of COVID-19.
“I’m not competing with a local school district or another contractor,” French said. “I’m competing with the government.”
In addition to bringing in drivers from the north, French said her garage has had to double routes at times to cope with the shortage.
That has changed times for students to be dropped off or picked up by 15-30 minutes in some cases. It also makes matters more complex because the buses cannot hold their full capacity due to social distancing guidelines.
“It causes disruptions and communication problems with parents,” Charron said of these changes. “Everybody gets in a routine and wants to know when their kid is coming home.”
French said the transportation will not be too problematic for now, but once the school district up north that the four temporary bus drivers work for returns to in-person learning, there will be a major issue.
“If we lost those four drivers, we would be in a mess,” she said.
To avoid that, French encouraged those looking for a part-time job that requires you to work about two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon to consider applying.
She said most drivers make about $367 a week after they finish their paid training. Retirees, college students and stay-at-home parents can often be a good fit, French added, with the latter group of people being able to even bring their own children with them on the bus.
“We’re still looking for that next wave of folks that this job works for,” French said. “For folks that want more work, I have work that I can’t give away for activities like football, baseball and soccer.”
To learn more, call the Waterloo bus garage at 618-939-8877 or visit the office at 108 Westview Plaza Drive in Waterloo.
“It’s important for them to come in and get a feel for the job because it can be a bit scary,” French advised.