A national bus driver shortage ‘unlike anything we have witnessed’ is leaving kids with disabilities frazzled and ‘at their wit’s end,’ experts say

Kids on a school bus.
The national school bus driver shortage has created difficulties for students with disabilities. Nam Y. Huh/AP
  • School districts across the country are facing a bus driver shortage.
  • Students with disabilities are being hit especially hard, one expert told Insider.
  • Unsuitable transportation can leave students with special needs “frazzled,” making it difficult for them to focus on learning.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A New York City middle school student, who lives with special needs, spends more than two hours on the bus ride home from school.

She comes home with persistent headaches and struggles with focus after the bus ride, her mom, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over fear of pushback from the school officials, told Insider.

Her daughter’s route was recently combined with one from another school, making an already long journey to and from school even longer, her mom said.

“You can’t just pack up your entire life and move because the company or the people responsible for busing your child aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” she said. “So you have to live with the consequences of that long travel.”

While the New York City Department of Education has denied that the national bus driver shortage is impacting the city, a spokesperson told Insider they “apologize that these families experienced these issues and are following up with them to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Students and parents across the US are contending with a shortage of bus drivers

The nationwide bus shortage has had a brutal effect on students who live with disabilities who require extra assistance and specialized busing.

In Wisconsin, multiple students with disabilities waited for nearly an hour for buses that never came. Similar incidents were reported in Virginia, where a pre-schooler and a high school student, both with disabilities, were left without any transportation to school. One student with special needs was left at the wrong school in New York. And a student with special needs in New Jersey did not have a bus assignment four weeks into her school year.

Public schools have a legal obligation to provide transportation for students who require it, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and there are stipulations regarding how long the bus ride is permitted to take.

It would be inappropriate for students to spend over an hour on the bus one-way or spend more time on their commute than they do in the classroom, Ron Hager, an attorney at the National Disability Rights Network, told Insider.

Sara Catalinotto, the founder of Parents to Improve School Transportation NYC, told Insider parents with children who have special needs have tried contacting schools, bus companies, and departments of education to have their concerns addressed, but they say little progress is being made.

“I feel like I’m being completely ignored by the entire chain of command,” the parent whose daughter rides the bus for two hours told Insider. “No one is ready to help.”

While some children with disabilities don’t mind a long bus ride, shortages can exacerbate stress

Students with disabilities had difficulties busing even before shortages caused by the pandemic and the subsequent national labor shortage, Hager said.

“Before the shortages – and it didn’t matter whether it was a suburban, urban or rural district – there were nightmare stories of kids getting left on the bus. Hour-long, hour-and-a-half-long rides to get from point A to point B,” Hager told Insider.

Some students can become extremely upset, Hager said.

“By the time they get to school, if they’ve had these kinds of experiences, they’re frazzled, and they’re at their wit’s end,” he added. “And they need to be calmed down before you can even begin to try and teach the student.”

Hager said children with disabilities who experience a meltdown on the bus can face consequences.

“When there is a meltdown, the kids can get suspended from the bus, even though it may be not really their fault if you will,” he said. “It’s because of their disability.”

Catalinotto said the shortage of bus drivers has led to a “revolving door” of drivers and attendants for students with special needs.

“It’s sad because it’s a beautiful relationship that can be built between this team that reaches your child in the morning and sees them first and kind of sets the tone for their school day,” she said.

A bus company executive said the driver shortage is the worst he’s ever seen

Edward Flavin, an executive at National Express LLC, a transportation company that serves over 30 states, said the current shortage is “unlike anything we have witnessed in over 100 years in the student transportation business.”

“The driver shortage is affecting a majority of our locations across the nation and has resulted in the need to adjust and combine routes. Some of our school districts have also adjusted bell schedules in response to the driver shortage,” Flavin told Insider.

A member of the National Guard drives a school bus.
The governor of Massachusetts called in the National Guard to assist amid the school bus driver shortage. Boston Globe

Some schools have gone to extensive lengths to find transportation in the absence of bus drivers. A school in Boston hired a party bus complete with a dancing pole and show lights to transport a group of high schoolers on a field trip.

Meanwhile, the governor of Massachusetts activated the National Guard to drive school buses, and New York state has implored over 550,000 residents with commercial driver’s licenses to become school bus drivers.

“Even in the best of times, you only have so many buses, you only have so many drivers,” Hager said, adding that it’s a difficult job because it typically isn’t full-time. “You take your route in the morning, you do something, then you have your route in the middle of the day. And as a practical matter, there are only so many people that can live their life like that.”