‘It’s a part-time job with a full-time commitment’
Macungie resident and Parkland School District school bus driver Sharon Schrantz distinctly remembers her first time behind the wheel of a school bus.
“When I sat behind the wheel I almost felt sick to my stomach,” she recalled in a phone interview.
The mirrors showing every angle of the bus were disorienting, she continued.
Twenty-one years later, nine with the East Penn School District and 12 years in Parkland she describes the job as rewarding.
“I enjoy the interaction with the kids a lot,” Schrantz said.
Nationally, Schrantz is one of too few currently behind the wheel of a school bus.
In February, National Public Radio reporter Robbie Feinburg noted a survey in School Bus Fleet magazine revealed 90 percent of responding districts “had some kind of driver shortage” with a third describing the shortage as severe or desperate.
Earlier this month a reporter for the St. Paul Star Tribune newspaper in Minnesota noted the St. Paul School District delayed the start of its after-school programming for two weeks because of a shortage of bus drivers.
And in coverage of a school bus shortage in her state of Missouri television news journalist Amy Anderson reported teachers in a Virginia school district were training as bus drivers to make sure students got to class on time because many were arriving late due to the lack of drivers.
Andrew Krahulik, terminal manager for Student Transportation of America in Lower Macungie Township, understands.
Too few drivers has meant he, his mechanics and office staff have school bus runs.
“We take what we do very seriously,” Krahulik said in an on-site interview on a day when a school holiday had many busses parked at the terminal.
“This is the most precious cargo,” Krahulik said of the school students he and his drivers take to and from school, to sport activities, on field trips and other school related events.
Carrying such cargo comes with its challenges.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation requires vision and hearing along with other medical tests, criminal history and other background checks for the licensing process to begin. Applicants must be 18 years old. The Federal government also requires a commercial driver’s license, Krahulik noted.
A driver “must complete a minimum of 20 hours of instruction, which includes 14 hours of classroom instruction and six hours of in-bus training,” according to the PennDOT school bus driver licensing process fact sheet available online.
The driver’s test includes a vision screening, knowledge tests and skills tests on such factors as letting students off the bus or crossing railroad tracks.
“You have a lot of knowledge to gain,” Schrantz said. “I know I drive a very large piece of equipment. I don’t want to get complacent. I want to always be aware,” she added.
In an email David Cressman, transportation supervisor for the Catasauqua School District, wrote annual physicals and related costs “can make it hard as well” as drivers maintain their credentials to stay in the driver’s seat.
However, driving a school bus comes with several unique benefits.
The daily schedule leaves drivers free time midday.
“It’s the perfect retirement job,” Krahulik said with a smile.
“Also, this gives some people a reason to get up, get dressed and have some social life but still have from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. to do chores, shop, sleep,” Cressman wrote.
“I actually have someone on standby who, when he retires from the post office, wants to come drive for me,” Cressman continued.
Schrantz spoke of the pleasure of seeing students grow from her post behind the wheel of a school bus. Her route has allowed her to watch students grow from kindergarten through elementary school and return to her route in high school. Younger or older siblings of her current passengers may pass through her bus doors as well.
“I find that a really neat feeling to have the whole family,” Schrantz said.
School bus drivers are a part of the community, Krahulik emphasized. Many are passionate about what they do and have attracted others to the job by talking about their work.
“It starts a conversation with people and that’s a big thing,” he added. “It’s a part-time job with a full-time commitment.”
“Our goal is to make sure (students) get to and from school safely,” Krahulik said.