In the driver's seat

Bozeman, Montana

 The wheels on Brenda Barrett’s school bus start going ’round at 6:30 in the morning.  

The first handful of stops yield no passengers, but when Barrett sees children on the horizon, she welcomes them aboard with a wave. “You’re really one of the first people they see in a day,” she said. School buses now have seat belts for every passenger, and children squirm to get theirs clicked around their bodies.

Barrett’s route twists around the foothills below Sypes Canyon. It’s a great place to see change in real time, be it the seasons creeping up and down the Bridger Mountains, the batches of new houses under construction or even the development of an adolescent horse, born last year.

Over the course of a day, Barrett says she might drive 100 miles, “mostly in circles.” Now, in her fourth year of driving, she says she’s only missed two days. “The kids and parents rely on you,” she said. “You’re providing a serious service.” 

It’s a service that’s becoming harder to find. Paralleling staff shortages in schools, bus routes around the country are finding themselves without drivers. In Massachusetts, 250 National Guard members were recently deployed to serve as drivers. First Student, the national bus chain that contracts with Bozeman School District, sent drivers from Tacoma, Washington, to cover for shortages in Bozeman this year. Barrett’s route added a couple stops to make up for fewer drivers, but she hasn’t really noticed much of a difference from before. It never felt like there were enough drivers.

When the school day is done Barrett reverses her route, returning to the bus barn to park in neat formation alongside dozens of other buses once scattered to every corner of the city.