ST. PAUL -- Bus driver shortages are adding more uncertainty and stress for students and families as they start another pandemic-disrupted school year.

In Minneapolis, the district is telling parents it will pay them to drive their kids to school because there aren’t enough drivers to cover all the routes.

The Stillwater school district is suing its bus contractor for breach of contract, arguing the company left more than 20% of district routes uncovered, KARE 11 reported.

On Tuesday, Sept. 7, St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said a bus contractor dropped 40 routes in the last week, prompting the district to scramble for transportation.

St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard speaks to reporters outside Central High School on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021.
Tim Nelson / MPR News
St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard speaks to reporters outside Central High School on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Tim Nelson / MPR News

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For now, St. Paul will be staggering start times for seven schools in order to be able to provide bus service to them. The district is also canceling school bus service to four high schools, and instead offering students Metro Transit cards.

“I know this is extremely difficult,” Gothard said.

District officials said they would revisit the schedules during the holiday break at the end of 2021, but said they expected high school students to rely on public transit through the end of the school year.

$3,000 bonuses, still not enough drivers

Kaori Yamada was excited about putting her kindergartner, sixth and eighth grade children on the bus to new schools this fall. But in August, the Minneapolis parent got a message from the district that it didn't have enough bus drivers. It asked if she would be able to drive the children to school herself.

"I'm not entirely sure what happens on Sept. 10 of getting three children to two schools with the different bell times,” she said. “I don't know. I'll be a full-time mom-Uber again.”

Yamada and her husband both work full time, but she was hopeful they might be able to work out a carpool agreement with their neighbors.

The bus driver shortage is hitting school districts across the country. In Grand Forks, N.D., city buses have been tapped to help take students to school. In Pittsburgh, the district is short more than 400 drivers, leaving nearly half of their students without a bus ride to school.

Minneapolis public school officials said they have only about two-thirds of the drivers they need. If that doesn’t change, there won't be enough drivers to safely spread kids out on bus rides.

Students will be packed three-to-a-seat with masks and open windows and ceiling hatches, even during the cold Minnesota winter months, said Steve Crenshaw, the district’s transportation manager.

"The shortage of drivers nationally, not just here in Minneapolis, has really been pretty strong and consistent over the last five years. What COVID has brought to the table is, it has just compounded it," said Lisa Beck, Minneapolis Public Schools' executive director of public transportation.

Beck, who said the district has been at every job fair possible, is offering a $3,000 hiring bonus, raising drivers' wages from $20 an hour and paying applicants to train to get their commercial license.

Still, in August it had to message families, asking them to drive their own kids to school and offering to reimburse them for mileage.

Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said Tuesday her department is working with the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development on incentives and support that could help address the driver shortage.

‘Front line of who we are’

Crenshaw, the Minneapolis district transportation manager, said he’ll be spending more time this year running routes to ease the driver shortage.

"Usually I'm the last person to go out,” he said. “Now we have so few drivers, but we don't really have any standbys anymore.”

He said last year he and his crew came to work to deliver food and computers to students who needed them after schools and some shops closed following the murder of George Floyd.

It's stressful work with long hours and constant exposure to unvaccinated children. It’s happening in a competitive job market where Lyft, Uber, Amazon and other transportation companies are also offering incentives to try to attract drivers.

"The wages should go up. Drivers in this district are some of the lower-classified people, even though, to me, they're the first person a child sees. They are actually, to me, the front line of who we are and what we're all about," Crenshaw said.

MPR News reporters Peter Cox and Tim Nelson contributed to this story.