MINNEAPOLIS — As kids across the state head back to school this week, getting there has become a major issue for several districts.
An ongoing bus driver shortage – locally and nationwide – has now forced districts to get creative.
In Minneapolis, they're paying parents who are able to drive their kids to class.
In St. Paul, seven schools are pushing back their start times, and older students are being asked to use metro transit if they need a ride.
Stillwater is also facing a driver shortage, and has actually filed a lawsuit over it, saying their bus company broke their contract by not making sure they had enough drivers for the school year.
Even schools that have their routes covered, say they are extremely tight.
To make matters worse, experts say efforts to increase wages, bonuses and other incentives, will take time before bringing lasting relief.
"It's not going to be a quick fix," said Shelly Jonas, Executive Director of the Minnesota School Bus Operator's Association. "I think it will take time for those things to filter out there, and so I would say, hopefully, maybe by mid-October, we can get this situation fixed."
Jonas says the pandemic has impacted the shortage in several ways.
"I know that a number of our people have said that the Delta variant has caused some of their people to leave," she said. "And just the way schools were shut down on and off last year, I think people didn't feel secure in the position, so that caused some people to leave the industry."
But as schools scramble to fill positions, she says many are overlooking another critical factor: before you start a bus route and grab that bonus, you need a Commercial Driver's License (CDL) and the pandemic has complicated that too. It's a process that can take weeks and some extra travel time.
"The shutdown of the DMVs have definitely hurt our industry," Jonas said, referencing several branches that closed during the pandemic and have yet to reopen. "Many of our school bus contractors have to send their applicants an hour or hour and a half, to take a written test. We don't even have the ability to go online and set up an appointment, so we have to wait in line."
Jonas says the backlog is hurting both new applicants and long time drivers who need to renew their licenses. Last week the DMV did announce 96 special weekend appointments for the end of September to help with demand for CDL road tests, including bus tests. But the additional appointment were only offered in the metro area, and all the slots are already full.
"For us, it's been frustrating to see the DMV make it easier for 16 year old drivers get an appointment, rather than our people who depend on a license to earn a living in Minnesota," Jonas said.
And that frustration extends beyond bus drivers.
"It seems to be very difficult, sometimes weeks at a time and maybe even a month or two before they can get in and get their tests taken," said Steve Yaggy, owner of Yaggy Specialty Transportation in Rochester. "I'd sure like to see our state agencies work on that test availability."
Yaggy says the Minnesota Trucking Association has been trying to combat a driver shortage of their own since before COVID began, and with the crunch now, once drivers finally do get their CDL, he says their options go far beyond driving bus.
"The driver is in the driver's seat – pun intended," Yaggy said. "There are a lot of opportunities out there. We're just, constantly, looking for different ways to retain drivers; to keep the drivers moving, keep their paycheck good and get them home to their families."
When asked about potentially increasing CDL testing availability, Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services sent the following statement to KARE11:
The weekend appointments on September 25 and 26 are a pilot program. DPS-DVS will look at the demand and no-shows for the weekend and determine if there will be more extra weekend appointments.