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Driver shortage complicates bussing

With the COVID-19 pandemic and hybrid learning on the table, it was sure to be a hectic start to the school year for Austin Public Schools.

Now a bus driver shortage at Palmer Bus has made things even more difficult for area families with students in schools as the task of getting them there has been difficult.

Palmer is 13 bus drivers short at the moment, which means that they are operating 40 percent of their usual capacity.

The shortage came as a result of some of Palmer’s older bus drivers quitting over concerns with COVID-19. Now Palmer is hoping community members who have their CDL can step up and fill the spots of those drivers.

“Because of our high employment rate, we don’t have a lot of people looking for part time jobs,” Austin superintendent David Krenz said. “What they get is retired folks who are in that vulnerable age. You can’t blame them for not wanting to put themselves at risk.”

Austin has brought in some drivers from Mankato and it may bring in some drivers from Rochester in the future as it looks to get students to school and home from school in a timely fashion.

Shane Johnson, the Chief Operations Officer at Palmer Bus Service, said the company has reacted better to the bus shortage since the first day of school.

“We have to get very creative. The drivers that we do have have been here for years. They’ve been staples in the communities and they know the streets and they know the schools,” Johnson said. “The drivers that we do have have been team players and they’ve done everything they can to get the kids home. We have some really good people in Austin who care about kids and they’ve gone above and beyond to get those kids to school and get them home. We’re doing the best we can.”

Of the 24 school districts that use Palmer, Austin has been the hardest hit. Johnson said all of the other districts have only had one or two drivers quit. Since the shortage, Palmer has gone all in as it has brought in a full time recruiter and anyone with a CDL is offering their help.

“We’re all pitching in,” Johnson said. “We just need people in the community to be willing to get their CDLs. The Austin community makes up the drivers for the Austin school district.”

While getting new bus drivers behind the wheel is crucial, it may take some time for Palmer to make a full recovery. The DMV is currently backed up and it could take a couple of months for would-be drivers to obtain their CDL.

“It won’t end in a flash. It has to do with the number of bodies that we have available,” Krenz said. “We really appreciate the patience, and I know it’s wearing thin on our families and our parents helping out by bringing their kids to school.”