Practical reasons – some extra cash, a lack of jobs when they first moved to Southwest Colorado – may have initially attracted most school bus drivers to their jobs, but helping students brings many veteran drivers back year after year.
“I’ve stayed with it for 30 years,” said Crystal Schmit, who has semiretired from bus driving, but will serve as a substitute driver this year. “I used to be introverted when I first started. Not anymore. Driving kids for 30 years will change you.”
Schmit planned to hang up her driving gloves this year, but she knows the Durango School District 9-R Transportation Department is chronically short-handed, so she decided to return as a substitute.
In her 30 years with 9-R’s Transportation Department, she served not only as a driver, but a trainer to drivers, and she has conducted tests for commercial driver’s licenses.
“This is my home. I’ve trained half these people, and I knew they were short-handed, and I want to help them get things done,” Schmit said.
The situation facing the Transportation Department is pretty typical – the district is looking to fill three open spots among its 23 driver positions, said Daniel Blythe, 9-R’s director of transportation.
“Usually, we start the school year with a few openings,” he said. “Our best way to fill positions tends to be word of mouth. Drivers know somebody who knows somebody.”
In a pinch, everyone in the transportation department, administrators and mechanics, will get behind the wheel to fill in if a route needs to be covered.
The job pays fairly well, $16 an hour to start with district benefits for a five-hour day.
But because the day’s schedule is split between a morning and after-school route, bus positions are sometimes difficult to fill, said Julie Popp, spokeswoman for 9-R.
In addition, a required drug test in a state where marijuana is legal, random drug tests, spending nights away from home with athletic teams on the road, and sheer stress of driving kids around in a county known for its mountains and steep terrain all play a part in making bus driver positions sometimes tough to fill, Popp said.
As with most jobs, COVID-19 will affect bus drivers during the upcoming year. Students and drivers will be required to wear masks and the number of students riding a bus has been cut in half from 78 to 39 to maintain social distancing.
Schmit believes cutting the number of students on a bus to 39 will help keep order, but it will also double the daily routes drivers must complete.
For some, like Schmit, who began driving for 9-R because of a job shortage in the county when she first moved here, once they’ve been on the road with the kids, they discover they enjoy their time behind the wheel.
“She’s driven kids of the kids of the kids she first drove,” Blythe said.
Schmit’s favorites are her youngest riders.
“The elementary kids, you see them grow. You get to know the kids really well. You learn what’s going on in their lives,” she said.
Middle school students, Schmit said, are the toughest. They’re the most likely to pull pranks, grow overly rambunctious and require the driver to occasionally lay down the law.
Shannon Daniel, who has been driving 9-R buses for 19 years, recalls seeing a 2-foot snake slithering down the aisle during a route on the Dryside.
“Some kids were jumping up on the seats and some kids were laughing so you know who was in on the prank,” she said. “Eventually, I figured out it was a bull snake, so it wasn’t dangerous. It’s funny now, but at the time it wasn’t.”
When students get too unruly, Schmit’s favorite tactic is to simply pull the bus over to the side of the road and wait for a minute or two.
“Eventually, somebody will ask, ‘Why are we pulled over.’ And I’ll say, ‘Because it’s too noisy to drive.’
“It doesn’t do to just yell at them. But if you delay their day a bit, they’re not happy. That gets them to calm down,” she said.
High school students are often too cool to talk to the bus driver, but Schmit says she loves seeing the seniors she started transporting in elementary school as they’re set to graduate. “You get to see these children grow into young adults.”
Schmit remembers winter 1993, the year when the roof at an auditorium at Fort Lewis College collapsed under 4 feet of snow.
“I spent a couple of hours stuck at Lemon Reservoir with the kids waiting for their parents to pick them up,” she said.
The key to dealing with storms, she tells younger drivers, is to be prepared, make sure you’re clothed properly, have chains – both the ones that automatically deploy and regular chains – ready to go, have windshield wipers that are in good shape and have the proper equipment to deal with the elements.
Roy Baxter, who has driven for 9-R for 11½ years, remembers hearing radio reports of bus after bus go off the road during a storm during winter 2018. When he got to a hill on his route on County Road 203, even with chains, he joined the flock of buses that had ended up off the road.
“It wasn’t a real deep storm, but it was wet and then it turned cold and got slippery. I just couldn’t stop and ended up in a ditch,” he said.
But more than storms, Baxter said the most stressful part of his job is watching out for the crazy stunts some drivers pull.
“Ninety percent of the drivers are good drivers, but 10% are bad drivers,” he said. “They run red lights, they cross double-yellow lines. They don’t stop when buses have their red lights on and the stop sign extended.
“People are wrapped up in their own world and they don’t think the rules apply to them.”
Daniels, too, says she sees cars ignoring school buses that are stopped unloading children with their red lights flashing and their stop sign extended.
She’s had to wave kids back to the sidewalk because she sees oncoming cars that are not slowing down to stop.
“People forget with school not in session. You just want to tell people to watch out,” she said. “School is back and kids are out and about again. Be careful.”