116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids school bus driver Christine Huston didn’t know she would become a “positive female role model” when she became a bus driver.
Huston, 45, who has been a school bus driver for almost a decade, often hears girls on her bus exclaim how cool it is to have a “girl school bus driver,” she said. In the Cedar Rapids schools, one-third of school bus drivers are women.
School bus drivers play an important role in a student’s life — they are “book ends” to the day, Huston said. They are the first high-five as students start their school day and last goodbye before they go home.
“I’m challenging myself to learn hello or good morning and goodbye in different languages,” Huston said. “You get to know your students, so they don’t feel left out.”
Bus drivers needed
The Cedar Rapids school district is in need of about 15 additional bus drivers for the 2021-22 school year, which begins Monday.
The district hires more drivers than the number of bus routes to give flexibility to staff who need to take a day off.
There also are nine mechanics on staff who are all certified to drive a school bus, but “we never want to rely on the mechanics as regular drivers,” said Erica Shelangoski, a bus driver recruiter for the district.
Last summer, Cedar Rapids schools lost a fifth of their school bus drivers because of COVID-19. The shortage in bus drivers is not new, however.
“We are always hiring for bus drivers,” Shelangoski said.
Cedar Rapids schools once again are not able to provide free busing for Cedar Rapids Catholic school families — a service cut by the district last year because of the shortage of bus drivers.
“Eventually we would like to be able to, but we’re unable to at this time,” Shelangoski said.
About 73 percent of school bus drivers in the United States are 55 or older, with many over 60 years old, the AARP reported.
When Huston applied to be a school bus driver in her 30s, she thought it was a job she couldn’t do because she wasn’t retired.
“This position isn’t just for retirees,” she said. “Give it a shot. We’ve got great trainers.
“I didn’t think I’d last as long as I have. Ten years is a lot, and I’ve loved every bit of it.”
Masks are required to be worn on school buses, in accordance with federal law. School districts in Iowa cannot require masks to be worn in classrooms, however, because of a state law that bans school districts from making mask requirements.
Huston, who is vaccinated, said she would wear a mask even if it wasn’t law to protect herself and the students on her bus.
She trusts her students to honor the law and wear a mask.
“Students here are amazing,” Huston said. “They know they don’t need to wear them in the building, but in order to get home and protect their classmates, they need to wear them on the bus.”
“It’s just like walking into a classroom.” she said. “You can’t talk without raising your hand. You can’t board a bus without wearing a mask.”
Expect a full school bus
The College Community School District eliminated a few bus routes last year because student ridership was down, with some students enrolled in virtual learning.
They are not bringing those routes back this year for a variety of reasons — one being the need for more bus drivers.
“It is a continual process of hiring bus drivers. We hire all year long,” Transportation Director Kris Hartgrave said. “We’re always looking for the best for our kids.”
This means more students will be on one bus.
“Some buses we’ll have to watch very closely the first couple days of school because they will be very full,” Hartgrave said. “Especially for the bigger kids, it’s hard to pack three students to a seat.”
College Community bus drivers drive two routes, which means they could transport up to 120 students each day.
The district is encouraging drivers to assign seats to make taking attendance easier and help them get to know each student.
“We encourage bus drivers to know them by name,” Hartgrave said.
Last year, bus drivers came up with creative COVID-19-safe ways to greet students without spreading germs.
“They shared different ways of bumping elbows or giving finger waves,” Hartgrave said.
Paid training, hiring bonuses for bus drivers
Drivers must be at least 18, physically and mentally competent, and pass checks that include criminal background, driving record and drug and alcohol screenings, according to the state’s School Bus Driver’s Handbook.
The Cedar Rapids school district provides paid training to employees and is offering a $500 hiring bonus to new drivers.
Shelangoski said something that holds people back from applying to be a school bus driver is that they think they can’t do it.
“I was afraid to get behind the wheel of a school bus,” Shelangoski said. “It isn’t as scary as it seems, and anyone who is interested should come talk to us.”
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