JCPS welcomes back students amid teacher and bus driver shortage
Bowen Elementary principal Lisa Wathen and staff welcomed students as they stepped off buses on the first day of school Wednesday morning.
When bus number 0657 pulled up, the students weren’t the only ones who exited. After parking the bus, driver Amanda McGrath also got off and headed to her classroom at Bowen.
McGrath is one of the school’s fifth-grade teachers. She started driving for JCPS last November when the district offered extra incentives to new hires and current employees to address a bus driver shortage.
“I need an extra job because children are expensive,” McGrath said.
When the district told McGrath she’d be driving Bowen students, she felt even better about her choice. “I felt like I had an upper hand cause I already knew them and had relationships."
In her time as a driver, McGrath has come to enjoy the job. “I get to see kids first thing in the morning," she said, "and they're always excited to see me."
In an effort to attract bus drivers, JCPS has offered incentives such as increased starting wages and attendance bonuses. The starting pay for a new driver is just over $21 an hour, plus a potential bonus of $6 an hour.
Despite hosting a recent bus driver hiring event, the district still began the school year with several routes lacking coverage. On the first day of school, at least 55 routes were expected to run on a delayed schedule due to the lack of drivers.
But the driver shortage is not a JCPS-specific issue — nor is the teacher shortage.
Bowen Elementary fourth-grade teacher Eva Neuss said she was confident in the district's ability to handle the teacher shortage.
“They have put systems in place that hadn’t been in place previously,” Neuss said. “Like pulling teachers that don’t work directly with children but are certified to be in there for 12-week periods at a time, so students don’t have random subs coming that are not skilled with the content.”
Beyond the challenges caused by the lack of teachers, educators are still dealing with adapting to teaching in person during an ongoing pandemic.
Due to Jefferson County’s current COVID-19 levels, JCPS is requiring people to wear masks indoors and while riding the bus.
“Being masked is not the best case scenario, but we’ve adapted,” Neuss said.
At Bowen, teachers wear microphones around their necks to help project their voices. Additionally, they have handheld microphones available for students to use during class.
Even with the challenges and struggles that come with being a teacher, Neuss said she returns every year because of the students and her belief in the public education system.
One of Neuss’s students this year is Olivia Shanton.
Shanton has attended Bowen since kindergarten, but this year she’s excited about a change in her normal schedule.
“I get to have two teachers,” said Shanton, who as a fourth-grader now gets to switch classes during the school day. “They’re doing it so we can be ready for middle school and stuff.”
For Wathen, Bowen’s principal, ensuring students like Shanton have an enjoyable and productive school year is her top priority.
“There’s gonna be challenges no matter what happens, and we have to remember why we're here, we’re here for kids, always,” Wathen said. “So all of the other stuff is just that — stuff.”
Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.