School districts in McHenry County and throughout the Chicago suburbs are facing a shortage of substitute bus drivers and teachers, both problems that existed before COVID-19 struck Illinois that have been exacerbated by the viral pandemic, according to local superintendents and a contractor that provides transportation services for area students.
The shortage of substitute bus drivers persists despite far fewer students riding the bus to schools that have tried or still are in hybrid learning models than in past academic years, local school officials said.
Recruiting bus drivers has been especially difficult lately, said John Benish Jr., president and chief operating officer of Cook-Illinois Corporation, a school transportation contractor serving districts in McHenry County and throughout Chicago and its suburbs. He said there is concern that the dearth of substitutes will be even more of an issue when more school districts in the state restart in-person learning.
"When everyone does go back in like January, it’s going to be tight," Benish said, adding that about 15% of his driving staff have said they would either retire or not return to work since the pandemic began.
Drivers fear they'll stop receiving unemployment benefits if they resume working as districts restart or begin hybrid learning classes and then the schools return to remote learning and they have little to no work again, Benish said.
The back-and-forth is one several districts in McHenry County have recently undertaken and superintendents have said students should be prepared to experience throughout the school year.
“It’s hard to get on unemployment, and it’s hard to get off unemployment. They’re worried about what just happened, they come off unemployment, and the schools have to go back to remote,” Benish said.
Plus, substitute bus drivers could be in higher demand than usual this year because of the potential need for school transportation workers to self-isolate following an exposure to a positive COVID-19 case or contracting the virus themselves.
"How that’s going to work if we have an outbreak or if something pops up, we’ll have to do the best we can like everyone else," Benish said.
Sue Wings, superintendent of Harrison School District 36 in Wonder Lake, said about 40% of the district's students are riding the bus to school this year, which marks a decrease in ridership from years past. She has recommended families drive their students to school when possible.
Her district contracts with Lakeside, a subsidiary of Benish's service, for its transportation needs.
Similar bus ridership trends are being experienced by Nippersink School District 2 and the high school system it feeds into, Richmond-Burton High School District 157, both of which have remained in hybrid learning models since the McHenry County Department of Health last week recommended schools consider a move back to fully remote learning.
Nippersink Middle School, however, returned to fully remote learning starting Oct. 26 and running through Nov. 9 after two school staff members tested positive for COVID-19 last weekend, and three other staff members were asked to quarantine as a result, according to a letter by Superintendent Tom Lind posted on the the district's website.
Buses in Lind's districts are running at 20% to 25% capacity on hybrid days, he said in an email, while prior to COVID-19 they would run at 70% to 90% regularly.
"Substitute bus drivers are in shortage and [District] 2 and [District] 157 is no different," Lind said. "We do have a small pool of substitute bus drivers but we can always use more."
The lack of substitutes is not limited to transportation services.
"We also face the same issue in the classrooms," Lind said. "Our teachers have [been] great helping the district cover the classes, during their prep time, of a teacher who may be out. However, that is not always possible and the pandemic has significantly reduced the number of subs we have access to."
Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 also is worried it could struggle with finding substitute teachers when it resumes hybrid learning.
"One of the concerns as we start to get into the full swing of this will be the number of quarantines we have and the sub availability to keep some in-person classes going," District 47 Superintendent Kathy Hinz said to her school board earlier this month, before the district returned from hybrid to remote learning. "That's probably one of our biggest concerns, is just having the substitutes available, because staff does normally get sick. It's wintertime."
District 47 members or students having close contact with at least one COVID-19 case on a bus have led to students and staff being asked to quarantine and contributed to what the McHenry County Department of Health deemed an outbreak at Crystal Lake's Lundahl Middle School earlier this month. That school closed its doors to in-person learning even before the county health department recommended schools revert to remote learning.
Out of the about 4,000 District 47 students that attended in-person instruction, 2,838, or 71%, had been riding the bus this year, district spokeswoman Denise Barr said, compared to about 74% of the about 7,300 students attending in-person classes during the 2019-20 school year.
District 47 also provides transportation services for the high school system it feeds into, Crystal Lake High School District 155, and officials are encouraging interested candidates to apply to be drivers, Barr said. The district has four substitute drivers available to it right now, but the districts normally prefer to have 15 to 18 at the ready.
The districts have "been advertising for sub drivers for months and had few applicants," Barr said, adding that it can take four to five weeks from the time of an initial candidate interview to get a driver licensed and certified to drive a bus.
"We do not have many substitute drivers, all school districts face that challenge," Woodstock School District 200 spokesman Kevin Lyons said. "We'll try to find more and do the best we can should the need for more substitutes arise."
He added that because his district has remained in fully remote learning so far and its plans to move to hybrid this month remain on hold, how many substitute drivers it will need is unknown.
"Finding substitute bus drivers is always a challenge, pandemic or otherwise. It could be exacerbated by COVID-19, but we don't really know yet under our current circumstances," Lyons said.
Benish said the annual predicament of finding replacement drivers will likely be a larger hurdle because of the outbreak for his business.
Johnsburg School District 12, when it was holding hybrid classes before moving back into fully remote learning earlier this month, had about 69% of students in hybrid models riding the bus, down from about 80% ridership in years past, Superintendent Dan Johnson said in an email.
"We have not hired any sub drivers this year. We have one on-staff substitute. We have two additional regular substitutes. We also have two additional district employees, in other positions, who are available substitutes if it becomes necessary," Johnson said.
McHenry Elementary School District 15, which also provides transportation services for McHenry High School District 156, recently advertised it was hiring bus drivers, but that is no longer the case since the district has decided to remain in fully remote learning, said Cindee Nootbaar, administrative assistant to the district's superintendent.
"We are not currently transporting any students to our District 15 schools. We actually are not in need of additional drivers at this time, nor do we need substitute drivers, as we are operating remotely for the foreseeable future," Nootbaar said. "All advertising for bus drivers has been removed recently."