Lift for Life director takes the wheel amid school bus driver shortage

ST. LOUIS — School bus driver Marshall Cohen navigates tight city streets each morning to pick up a dozen kids before dropping them off at Lift for Life Academy. Then Cohen heads to his day job — executive director of the charter school.

“He owns the school and he drives the bus!” said King Moore, 8, as he hopped aboard recently.

Cohen, 60, earned his commercial driver’s license over the summer, anticipating a shortage of school bus drivers that’s hit a crisis level nationwide. Schools are offering hiring bonuses, paying for training and increasing hourly pay to attract more drivers.

Driving a bus is the latest effort in Cohen’s commitment to the school he co-founded 21 years ago. If a student isn’t outside waiting for the bus, Cohen calls the family. He offers a fist bump and a compliment to each kid who gets on:

“There he is! The man of the hour!” and “Here they are! Look at those shoes!”

“God I love kids, isn’t it great?” Cohen says to no one in particular as the students take their seats and laugh with their friends.

The shortage of bus drivers is complicating the start of a school year already besieged by the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19, battles over masking requirements and the challenge of catching up on educational ground lost as the pandemic raged last year.

In Granite City, Madison County Transit stepped in Tuesday after the school district said most students in grades five through 12 would not have bus transportation this week. Students can ride the public buses to school for free at least through Sept. 30.

School districts including Mehlville and Parkway are down by more than a dozen bus drivers from their goal and waiting on several drivers in training. Mechanics and other transportation and facilities employees have been filling in on some routes in the districts.

The Fox School District in Arnold had to change bell times in most of its schools this month because of the shortage of drivers.

In Affton, the district started the year with five bus routes for each school, less than half the routes they offered before the pandemic and down from seven last year. But because students don’t have to skip rows this year for distancing, there is room for 50 more riders this fall. The district is still recruiting drivers to add routes.

Unlike public school districts, charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately managed — are not required to provide transportation. Cohen said dropping Lift for Life’s fleet of 20 buses was never an option.

“We believe that having transportation is a part of being in the school business, to make sure it’s equitable,” Cohen said. “We gotta get the kids to school. The last 18 months of virtual, half-in, half-out — we have to be full-in.”

The bus driver shortfall isn’t new, but a labor shortage across many sectors and the pandemic’s lingering effects have made it worse because about half the workforce was older than 65 and more vulnerable to the virus, said Joanna McFarland, co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based HopSkipDrive, which tracks school bus issues.

At least two local school bus drivers have died of COVID-19 — one from the Ferguson-Florissant School District in April 2020 and another from the Francis Howell School District in January.

‘A breaking point’

McFarland’s company conducted a survey in March that found nearly 80% of school districts that responded were having trouble finding enough bus drivers this year.

“It’s really at a breaking point,” she said.

First Student bus company, which contracts with several St. Louis area school districts, held test driving events they called “Big Bus, No Big Deal” in many cities including Normal, Illinois, this summer to let people try their hand at driving. The hope was that it could reduce the intimidation factor for those who otherwise might be interested in helping get kids safely to and from school.

The company is offering to pay new drivers in the St. Louis area $20 per hour plus a $3,500 signing bonus.

Many veteran bus drivers have quit in the last year because of masks, according to First Student. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires masking on school buses as part of a federal mandate for public transportation.

A bus driver in the Fort Zumwalt School District in St. Charles County resigned this month after complaining on social media about masks and the high temperatures on the bus.

Economic forces are also at play in the bus driver shortage. Driving a school bus requires a commercial driver’s license that can take weeks to obtain. And people who have them can often find higher-paying work that doesn’t require splitting the day for pickup and drop-off. Demand for commercial drivers is only increasing with the pandemic-related surge in online shopping, said McFarland with HopSkipDrive.

But working with kids can be rewarding, and the hours work well for stay-at-home parents or retirees seeking to supplement their income, contractors say. There’s no requirement to work nights, weekends or holidays. Field trips and sporting events can add hours for those who want them.

Lift for Life coaches are training to become bus drivers so they can take their teams to games, Cohen said.

Every morning as his bus approaches the school on south Broadway, Cohen leads the students in a 60-second countdown to “landing” at the back door.

“Today we get to have three recesses, and I like learning,” said King, the second grader. “I got some sleep last night. Now it’s time for my brain to get smarter.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.