Although busing is an unquestionable necessity for many rural school districts, it too faces a severe staff shortages and an ever-changing licensing framework in additional to perennial budget concerns. Regarded for their local expertise in the topic, Rural Schools Collaborative's North Dakota Hub partner, the NREA affiliated North Dakota Small Organized Schools, helps countless districts across the state of North Dakota to navigate this landscape to find passionate and quality drivers. Michael Heilman, Executive Director of NDSOS, submitted this editoral detailing recent federal licensing changes, and how that impacts schools in his region.
Bismark, ND: In much of America, this scenario repeats every day of the school year: distinctive yellow buses are seen traveling the gravel roads, highways and byways, ensuring the safe travel of students to school. My father was a bus driver in the 1960’s. I remember growing up 25 miles from the school and getting on the bus every morning with my brothers and sisters. Down the gravel roads we went, stopping at the multiple farmsteads along the way, the sun rising in the east, ultimately arriving safely at school. Today that same scenario unfolds each morning in our nation’s rural, suburban, and urban areas. School buses and the heros that drive them are vital to the education of many of our nation’s students.
School districts across the country and in my state of North Dakota have relied on buses and bus drivers to deliver their precious cargo for decades. Over the past couple years school districts in North Dakota have found it very difficult to recruit and retain bus drivers. Many school administrators and teachers have had to add the additional responsibility of being a bus driver to their day. If you are not experiencing the challenges of recruiting and retaining bus drivers, consider yourself lucky!
In addition, the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration (FMCSA) has additional requirements as of February 7, 2022, that make the challenge of finding bus drivers even more difficult. The FMSCA Entry Level Drivers Training (ELDT), which was to go into effect in 2020, was delayed along with most other things during the pandemic. The delay is now over, and any new Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) candidate must complete the ELDT prior to taking a CDL drivers license exam. So, what does this mean?
In North Dakota, and I assume in every school district across the nation, new bus driver candidates must complete the mandatory FMCSA ELDT prior to taking the examination that provides them with the proper CDL license and endorsement required to drive a school bus. In North Dakota, that license is comprised of a Commercial Driver’s license (CDL) and the endorsement, school bus (S) and/or passenger vehicles (P)--please check your states’ requirements for bus driver licensure. It’s hard to argue with safety and additional training to ensure bus drivers are prepared to deliver students in the safest possible manner. At the same time the additional requirements will have some impact on recruitment of bus drivers, hopefully only for the short term. Once this new training becomes the norm, the impact will likely be negligible and simply what we do.
The good news is that the FMCSA has excellent resources on their website. All entities that are going to train drivers must register on the Training Providers Registry: https://tpr.fmcsa.dot.gov/Provider. FMCSA provides a registry of training providers that can be accessed on the site. In North Dakota, we have determined that most districts will register as training providers and have a qualified driver provide the training. In some cases, smaller districts may collaborate and have a single qualified individual provide the necessary training to new drivers from several districts.
The ELDT consists of both classroom/theory training and behind the wheel (BTW) training. The curriculum is available on the FMSCA website: https://tpr.fmcsa.dot.gov/content/Resources/ELDT-Curriculum-Summary_508.pdf. The classroom portion of the training can be done online and a Google search will reveal multiple entities providing the classroom training. Do your homework to ensure the provider is covering all aspects of the online training. North Dakota Small Organized Schools offers members a discount to online training through Infinit-I Workforce Solutions. I have been asked many times, “how long will this take”? The answer is, there is no time limit for the training. The FMCSA simply says that all aspects of the training must be successfully completed. Once the ELDT is successfully completed by a bus driver candidate, they are registered into the national database. When they go to take their CDL exam the test site can verify successful completion of the Entry Level Driver training.
Like most changes the FMCSA ELDT will cause some angst until we are more familiar with it and resolve how to meet the requirements. I recommend that school district administration make themselves familiar with the requirement and determine the best course of action that will ensure the yellow buses heading down the roads at sunrise are driven by qualified, safe drivers. Thank you bus drivers, you are heros.
To learn more about the life of a rural bus driver, check out this story from west central Illinois, and for more from our North Dakota partners, listen to this podcast featuring two of our Young Educator Advisory Councilors.