The Road to Attendance: Chronic Absenteeism and School Bus Driver Shortages

Dec. 19, 2023

When considering the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we often focus on student learning and teacher shortages. However, a little discussed staffing problem remains unresolved — the declining number of school bus drivers. 

According to one analysis, the number of school bus drivers fell by 14% between September 2019 and September 2021. A 2021 survey administered jointly by the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the National School Transportation Association, found that 51% of respondents described their driver shortage as severe or desperate. A 2023 survey of school transportation and administrative leaders found that 65% of respondents are currently experiencing school bus driver shortages. 

The dwindling number of school bus drivers may be cause for concern as a growing body of research ties access to school transportation to chronic absenteeism. Though causes of chronic absenteeism vary, a qualitative study of  the Detroit Public Community Schools District found that families reported transportation to be the most frequent barrier to school attendance. Below we offer examples of executive orders, state agency directives and legislation to address school bus driver shortages. 

Governors’ Actions and State Agency Directives 

  • Massachusetts (2021): Former Gov. Charlie Baker activated the Massachusetts National Guard in response to requests from local communities regarding school transportation. The order resulted in 250 national guard personnel ready to provide transportation services between September and November. 
  • North Carolina (2023): Gov. Roy Cooper announced a $1 million allocation of federal funding to the division of motor vehicles to enhance school bus driver training capacity and provide retention bonuses up to $3,000 for current school bus driver training employees. 
  • Pennsylvania (2023): The department of transportation announced it will implement the federal waiver for certain portions of the commercial driver’s license test to address school bus driver shortages. 
  • Utah (2022): Gov. Spencer Cox issued an executive order allowing state agency employees up to 30 hours of leave from their normal responsibilities to serve in their local K-12 school district as a substitute teacher, bus driver, cafeteria worker or other support service position. 

Legislative Actions and Enacted Strategies 

Some states have proposed alternative solutions to ensure students have safe transportation options, including rehiring retired bus drivers, sign-on bonuses, higher compensation and better benefits, and removing barriers to licensure.  

  • Connecticut S.B. 766 (2023, failed): This bill would have assisted school districts by providing them grants to help cover health insurance costs for school bus drivers. 
  • Kentucky H.B. 13 (2023, enacted): Increases the time period allowed for the required physical examination for commercial driver’s licenses with a school bus endorsement from 12 to 24 months. 
  • Maine L.D. 1030 (2023, enacted): Directs the secretary of state to report on school bus driver shortages and the efforts the secretary has made to alleviate shortages along with any recommendations to further alleviate shortages. The report must be submitted by Jan. 3, 2024. 
  • Montana H.B. 674 (2021, failed): The bill would have established the Driving the Future Grant program to support the recruitment and retention of new school bus drivers in rural school districts. The program would have provided at least $1,000 in financial assistance to help new school bus drivers complete training and license requirements in one or more years during their first three years in the form of a stipend or reimbursement in addition to regular wages.  
  • Rhode Island H.B. 7215 (2022, failed): The bill would have allowed Massachusetts and Connecticut licensed school bus drivers without a Rhode Island license to operate in the state, under limited conditions. 
  • West Virginia H.B. 2346 (2023, enacted): The bill allows retired bus operators to serve as substitute bus operators in areas of critical need.  
  • Wisconsin A.B. 233 (2023, enacted): The Legislature passed a bill that allows a school board member to volunteer as a school bus driver if they meet certain conditions. 

Prolonged school bus driver shortages have the potential to limit student attendance, but innovative state approaches to filling these vacancies like those described above could help address this issue in school districts. 

Author profile

Erin Whinnery

Erin Whinnery

Senior Project Manager at Education Commission of the States |

As a senior project manager, Erin supports the foundational research services at Education Commission of the States and has a particular interest in the areas of postsecondary access and success. Before joining the organization, Erin earned her master's degree in higher education administration from the University of Denver and a bachelor's degree in English from Boston College. On weekends, Erin is an amateur crafter and quilter.

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