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Sherrard, Orion school districts hit hard by bus driver shortage

Both districts have turned to other employees - including nurses, janitors and superintendents - to help fill in the gaps.

ORION, Ill. — Both the Orion and Sherrard school districts report bus driver shortages, saying other district employees have been stepping up to fill in the gaps. 

According to the National School Transportation Association, more than half of American school districts are now facing a 'severe' or 'desperate' need for bus drivers. 

Locally, that issue is forcing districts to get creative. At the Orion Community Unit School District, two cooks and a janitor help drive bus routes, while the district's transportation director and bus mechanic help out where it's needed. 

Even the district's superintendent has been hopping in to help, saying if even one bus driver can't work, it's an instant problem. 

"I've driven down to the Area Career Center multiple times. So if they get in a pinch, I can hop on a route and drive it," said Superintendent Joe Blessman. "If we get one or two bus drivers calling in sick, it's 'uh oh.'"

In a town of just over 2,000 people, Blessman notes there's not a large pool of people to pull from, when recruiting for drivers. 

"The problem with driving a bus is you have to come back to work twice a day. So to travel very far, with today's gas prices, we just don't have much reach outside of Orion to attract people to drive a bus," he said. "We're trying to get everybody certified that we can." 

The district says its shuffled things around as much as possible, even having coaches and teachers drive 'activity buses' for smaller sporting events, since a CDL license isn't required. 

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"They use those, which frees up a bus driver to drive a route or take a bigger trip somewhere else," said Blessman. 

Orion is now offering over $20 an hour to work as a driver. 

And when it comes to the pandemic, Blessman says it's made the issue worse on two fronts. If a driver needs to quarantine and can't come in to work, it creates an immediate need for a substitute. But it's the pandemic itself that he feels is scaring away some applicants. 

"I think some of the population - with COVID - probably decided to maybe stay away a little bit more, you know. Retired teachers coming back and subbing and those kinds of things," explained Blessman. "I think we're seeing less of that. And I do believe COVID is to blame for that."

Just ten miles way, the Sherrard School District is facing the very same problem. 

"Our school nurse is currently filling in. We have another retired driver filling in and we actually have a school teacher that's all driving for us at this time," said Jeff Shillinger, District Transportation Supervisor. "We've also had to use a lot of the mini buses, unfortunately, which is usually when the coaches drive a team. But we would obviously prefer them to be on a school bus with a driver." 

Shillinger says at this point, the district is hoping for two or three more drivers, on top of the 12 full-timers they already have. For weeks, they've taken out radio and TV ads, hoping to find candidates. And on a drive around Sherrard, it isn't hard to spot yard signs advertising for more drivers. The district is offering $18 an hour

"Our district is 180 square miles so it's very difficult for parents to drive 20-30 minutes sometimes to get their kids to school.  Without buses, it's difficult to get kids there," said Shillinger. "We've always had a little bit of a shortage, but it's been pretty close to critical for us this year a couple times, just with drivers having to quarantine." 

Neither district has had to cancel any bus routes so far this year, but say it's come close. 

"We need as many subs as we can," begged Shillinger. "Even if they only drive one route a week, one activity a week, that helps us out." 

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