Commentary: School bus drivers keep our kids safe; showing them respect could help improve the shortage

How many of us have seen a school bus come to a stop and activate its warning lights and stop arm, and yet a driver proceeds to pass the bus anyway? Imagine the fear that the bus driver must feel, as he or she is tasked with the responsibility of transporting children to and from school every day.

Last week, a child was killed and 23 others were injured in a bus accident in Clark County, Ohio, when a driver of a vehicle heading in the opposite direction veered into the bus driver’s lane. It was the first day of school for the students; unfortunately, it’s a day that those children and the families will never forget.

Moments like this remind us of the importance of those who oversee our children. In addition to family members, bus drivers are often the first people children see in the morning — during children’s best and worst moments. If a child has had a disagreement with a family member, they board the school bus with all kinds of emotions. Bus drivers must drive safely, manage the behavior of the students and minimize conflicts.

School districts across the country are experiencing a shortage of bus drivers, whose essential role has never been more evident.

As a school administrator, I have had some challenges related to the busing of students but thankfully not many. I attribute this to the quality of the relationship the bus company has forged with the school district and the district’s emphasis to our students on the importance of respecting their bus driver. Nevertheless, it is a persistent worry that parents and educational leaders have.

It’s often said that you never truly appreciate something until it’s gone. The supply of drivers continues to dwindle. Since the pandemic, it has decreased dramatically. Low pay, concerns about COVID-19, a lack of respect and competition from the private sector, which often pays more, are responsible for the shortage.

While many of us can’t do anything about bus drivers’ pay, we can respect the rules of the road. That includes stopping and being patient when the driver activates the stop arm, allowing children to cross the street safely, slowing down when a school bus passes by and just being mindful of the complexities of driving a school bus.

Lest we forget the fact that school buses are generally the safest vehicles on the road for children. In fact, research shows they are safer on the bus than in the car with their parents.

Yet, we don’t value bus drivers enough. Why is that? Is it symptomatic of a larger societal problem in how we fail to appreciate certain workers?

During the so-called great resignation, caused in large part by the pandemic, workers were quitting their jobs in record numbers. In August 2021, more than 4 million people quit their jobs, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows. The transportation industry was one of the hardest-hit industries, and school bus drivers fall under that category. While schools are back in session and operating normally, for all intents and purposes, the lack of bus drivers can cause significant challenges to student safety, students’ attendance (and therefore the quality of their education) and anxiety for parents, students and educators.

Perhaps this can change if we do the obvious: Respect the important job bus drivers have. We all cherish our children and love them unconditionally. We should show it by abiding by the rules of the road.

Teaching our youths the importance of behaving correctly on the school bus is also our responsibility. After learning about the horrific school bus accident in Ohio, I met with many of my students to talk about it. I not only wanted to reassure them that they were safe but also remind them that they are responsible for listening to and respecting their bus driver.

Certainly, adults can learn a thing or two about that. States across the country have costly fines when drivers illegally pass a school bus driver. In certain states, jail time is a given.

Regrettably, punishment must be meted out for some of us to follow the rules and take care of our most precious investment: our children.

American writer James Baldwin once said: “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” When we model to our youths how to behave appropriately, they will imitate us.

Jerald McNair, who has a doctorate in education and a graduate degree in public policy, is a school administrator in South Holland, School District 151, in Illinois.