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Unit 5 Bus On-Time Rate Improves But Still Lags

Emma Shores
First Student said it continues to reduce delays for Unit 5 school buses, but has not yet hit its 95% target for its on-time performance.

When school began in Unit 5 this fall, a lot of buses were getting kids to class late. Too many, according to Chris Coyle, the the area general manager for First Student, the company that has the Unit 5 bus contract.

Coyle said it's not just the usual shortage of workers willing to put up with the uneven hours and part-time work. It's also the pandemic.

"COVID protocols are also impacting when we have to put people on quarantine. The other thing you have is if folks are just not comfortable interacting because of COVID concerns. We have seen some challenges there," said Coyle.

He said quite a few drivers are quite open about taking absences when COVID cases are high in an area. He said others do not share.

"It's not an easy situation for all parties involved," said Coyle.

He said First Student has met its usual employment goal of having 112% of the number of people needed to staff all bus routes. He said some days that is enough; other days it is not.

"We've got enough drivers to cover routes. Unfortunately, we don't have flexibility when a driver calls off," said Coyle.

To help address that issue, Coyle said, First Student has worked with Unit 5 to reduce the number of routes.

"Which allows us to provide a driver to a route that was previously unassigned. We have made some good headway doing that. The other thing we are currently doing, just like with any process with late buses, we continue to look at some of the issues that potentially hit. Are we leaving late from schools? Are we reporting late? We look at everything, even down to the structure of the first-tier route and how that impacts the second-tier routes," said Coyle.

Coyle said on-time performance each day last week was in the high 80s. He said the goal is 95% on time. Early in the school year, there were anecdotal reports of buses arriving to school more than an hour late. Coyle said there has been significant improvement as First Student continues to hire, train, and try to retain drivers.

"We have improved roughly about 10% over the previous week. That is a dynamic number. It is not anywhere we want to be. The good news is we are making progress," said Coyle.

The shortage of drivers is nationwide. Many school districts have had to raise the pay rate to compete with non-transportation related part-time jobs. Coyle said First Student raised driver pay to $20 per hour a couple years ago and offers a $2,000 sign-on bonus.

"We would encourage anyone that's looking for a job that can impact students and help us out with our partner Unit 5, we'd love to have good solid candidates to step up," said Coyle.

Some areas of the country have seen an increase in applicants since unemployment assistance tied to the pandemic ended. Coyle said that has not happened in the Bloomington-Normal area. He said the reason probably is that the mix of drivers is probably more diverse in age and other demographic markers than it is in some other areas First Student serves.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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