Bus driver shortage affects Johnson City Schools, frustrating parents

Local

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A nationwide school bus driver shortage has been felt in the Tri-Cities, and now it is affecting one of the largest districts in the area.

Johnson City Schools officials said they are down ten drivers. A fully-staffed roster for the district is 54 drivers. That’s almost 20 percent of the workforce missing.

The district’s understaffed bus workforce has caused delays and cancelations of bus routes. Johnson City Schools Supervisor of Student Safety and Mental Health Dr. Greg Wallace said driver call-ins are often the cause of cancelations.

“We start the day every day down ten bus drivers,” Wallace said. “If we have any call-ins, any other types of issues with bus drivers, there’s no one to fill in.”

Wallace said two drivers called in Thursday, causing cancelations, including one at Liberty Bell Middle School. Jordan Tesnear started her day expecting her daughter to arrive home, but found out less than an hour before school got out at 2:30 p.m. that her bus route was canceled for Thursday and Friday.

Wallace said the school system had notified parents of cancelations through messaging apps. Tesnear did not get word of the cancelation until the school called her “at about 1:45 p.m.”

Tesnear was at work and could not leave to pick up her daughter. She said a family member had to bring her home.

“How are you supposed to drop everything that you’re doing on a normal daily basis and be like, ‘okay, I have to go get my child?'” Tesnear said. “You are supposed to be able to rely on the school and transportation system to get them home safely.”

Tesnear said she worried how cancelations could affect other working parents who might have to leave work behind to get their child home.

“We’re going to have to figure out how to work around having jobs and getting her to and from school if this is going to be an issue,” Tesnear said.

Wallace said parents should plan ahead with cancelations being a possibility by having a close family member or friend available to pick up a child. He also suggested carpooling with other parents on a bus route.

A final resort is the use of public transportation vouchers to ride a Johnson City Transit bus to the nearest stop to home, Wallace said.

Tesnear said she wanted no part of that due to safety concerns.

“You’re talking about putting a 12-year-old female child on a bus, public transportation nonetheless, by herself and just saying figure out how to get home,” Tesnear said.

Wallace reported that the use of public transportation in these situations is a long-standing policy and has not generated any safety issues.

Finding new drivers to fill vacancies has been a challenge. That responsibility falls on Johnson City Transit, not the school district.

Wallace said age has played a major factor in getting people on board, especially with COVID still running around.

“There are people that typically drive buses that typically are going to be people in an age range that are a little bit more vulnerable,” Wallace said.

Wallace said state law requires bus drivers be 25 and older, further limiting potential hires.

Still, Wallace said Johnson City Transit is working to bring more people in. He said they are looking at pay and incentives for drivers. News Channel 11 did not hear back from Johnson City Transit for comment.

For now, Wallace urged parents to be patient as the district and city work toward a solution.

“These things just take time. We ask people to be patient,” Wallace said. “We understand it’s frustrating, but I know transit is working incredibly hard to try to make sure that they come up with all the possible answers.”

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