School bus companies are wondering whether they will have enough drivers to cover routes this year — or perhaps even too many in districts such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, which plan to start the year with distance learning.

That's the dilemma facing bus companies as they prepare for the 2020-21 school year while waiting for districts to finalize teaching plans and assess their transportation needs.

"Our heads are just spinning," said John Thomas, president of the Minnesota Association for Pupil Transportation and transportation manager for Eastern Carver County Schools. "It's a stressful year. It's a huge project trying to put it together and make it work."

First Student, one of the largest school transportation companies in the metro area, is offering a $1,000 bonus to new drivers but so far has gotten a mixed response. Only a handful of prospective drivers turned out this week at First Student hiring fairs in Brooklyn Park and Champlin, though there was a better response at a hiring fair the company held in late July. Another hiring fair is set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday at Brooklyn United Methodist Church in Brooklyn Center.

The pandemic has created a demand for more drivers, said Craig Hutchinson, a trainer and recruiter with First Student. With the recent end of federal unemployment benefits that paid displaced workers $600 a week, recruiters are expecting applications to pick up, he said. But that's only the first step in getting drivers who earn $18 to $20 an hour behind the wheel.

Prospective drivers must pass four knowledge tests that can take several hours to complete, which can be a deterrent, Hutchinson said. The Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) division will offer a special testing session Saturday at its downtown St. Paul exam station that will allow prospective drivers to complete one test after another in about 97 minutes, said DVS spokeswoman Megan Leonard.

Prospective bus drivers must also complete classroom instruction, do behind-the-wheel training and pass a road test.

"The challenge is getting people through the process," Hutchinson said, noting that it can take four to six weeks after a driver applies before they can hit the road. "It seems overwhelming, but we will hold your hand the whole way."

Thomas said companies must be prepared to have a driver for every bus as the school year starts, and that number is a moving target because they don't know how many buses they'll need.

Gov. Tim Walz said schools may choose to offer distance learning, in-person learning or a combination of both, and Thomas said in-person instruction with staggered start times could stress the driver pool.

Some drivers are college students or retirees who only work part time, and that could mean trouble filling routes for buses out at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m.

"That's why we need to get people in now," he said. "We are still in extreme need of drivers."

Conversely, Thomas said, if many districts opt for distance learning and don't need drivers at the beginning of the year, there may be a shortage later if and when in-person classes resume.

"If the market isn't there [now], they may go somewhere else," Thomas said. "That is our fear. We'll lose a pool of people if we don't offer them something."

Shelly Jonas of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association, which represents the private contractors who operate about 60% of the school buses in Minnesota, said the challenge could be more pronounced in rural areas if districts divide routes between elementary and high school students.

"If max capacity on a bus is 50 percent, a 77-passenger bus is down to 34 people, so it gets small fast," she said. "Our members can't just order more buses [and staff them]. We have lots of question on how we are going to do this."

For now it's kind of a waiting game, but Jonas said she's not too concerned — yet.

"I think there is interest from people looking for second jobs or who have lost their job over COVID," she said. "It is a pretty good part-time job."

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768