HELENA — At the Helena School District bus yard off Canyon Ferry Road, dozens of buses are ready to start carrying students when classes begin next Monday. However, some of them may not be running right away, as the district’s bus operator, First Student, is dealing with a significant shortage of drivers.
Transportation director Tom Cohn says their goal is to have 72 drivers. The last time they heard from First Student, they were about 20 drivers short of that.
“I think in 20 years, this is probably the most drivers we’ve been down at the start of the year,” Cohn said.
District leaders said they’ve been looking at ways to deal with the gap for weeks. First Student has brought in temporary employees to cover some routes. Over the last few days, the district has worked on a plan to combine some of their routes.
“We will be running essentially two different routes with one bus – which complicates the transportation, in the fact that some kids will be getting up considerably earlier to catch the first tier of the route, and then there will be a second tier,” said Cohn.
Cohn said the most likely routes to combine will be those that are shorter and those with fewer students expected to ride. The district plans to let parents know what their kids’ bus schedule will look like by the end of the day Wednesday.
Helena Public Schools had been hoping to return to a more normal bus system, after changes due to COVID. Students and drivers are still required to wear masks on the bus because of federal rules on public transportation, but leaders were prepared to have regular routes running and more kids on each bus.
School districts across the country have been reporting difficulties finding bus drivers this year. First Student conducted several “Big Bus, No Big Deal” recruitment events in Helena this summer, giving people a chance to try driving a school bus. They are offering sign-on bonuses of several thousand dollars for new drivers.
Leaders are particularly looking for candidates who already have commercial driver’s licenses, since they can start sooner. First Student will train people who haven’t gotten CDL instruction, but Cohn said it will likely take two to three weeks to get them ready to start running buses.
If more drivers sign on, Cohn said the district will begin phasing out the combined routes. He encouraged parents to sign up for the Parent Portal app to get the latest information on their kids’ transportation. The district will also put out updates on Facebook and through other messaging systems.
The shortage of drivers isn’t just affecting daily bus routes. Leaders say it’s making it tougher to get students to sports and other extracurricular activities. They’re hoping people in the community will step up to assist.
“We’re looking at trying to help our kids get to school in the fashion they did a year and a half ago,” he said.
If you’re interested in applying to become a bus driver, you can find more information on the First Student website. You can also call the Helena office at (406) 227-7400, or visit them at 3200 Big Sky Loop, at the corner of Canyon Ferry Road and Wylie Drive.
A job posting for Helena is also available on First Student’s website.
The East Helena School District does not contract with First Student for its school bus service. Superintendent Dan Rispens says the district does have enough drivers, though they are trying to fill openings for many other positions, including paraprofessionals and custodians.