Even in pre-pandemic times, school bus-driver staffing could be challenging. Today it’s even more so, to the point that many schools simply cannot find enough drivers.
Driving a bus route has long been an option for older workers looking to supplement their Social Security checks. But health concerns about COVID have made some drivers wary of being in an enclosed space with unvaccinated children. Many have decided it’s not worth the risk, which has made the need for drivers even more urgent.
As schools nationwide confront this scarcity, districts have had to find alternative solutions for student transportation. In a recent nationwide survey of about 1,500 school transportation professionals, roughly two-thirds of all respondents said that the bus-driver shortage is their number one problem or concern.
Hidden risks of paying parents
One proposal being considered is paying students’ family members to transport children to and from school in their own vehicles. While well intended, this stopgap measure could open districts to unintended liability and coverage issues, particularly if they are paid to drive other students outside their own households, as it brings up new questions regarding driver qualifications and private vehicle safety.
Whether increased risks are covered by insurance depends on the facts regarding a loss as well as the specific policy language that is applicable. Because of this, carriers are unable to provide blanket assurances of coverage for districts desperate to solve their dilemma. We asked Liberty Mutual’s Public Entity leaders for their reaction to this new trend and what school administrators should consider before adopting this approach.
“School buses have been proven to be the safest form of transportation for schools,” says Steve Brown, Risk Control Technical Director for Public Entity. “Knowing this, Liberty Mutual recommends that whenever possible, student transportation is conducted via an approved school bus, driven by a qualified school bus driver.” While many districts own and operate their school bus fleet, about 40 percent of America’s school buses are owned by private transportation companies who contract with school districts. When a school district contracts out its bus driving operations, the district typically requires the bus transportation company to:
- Conduct Motor Vehicle Reports (MVR) and criminal background checks on drivers
- Perform pre-employment and ongoing drug testing on drivers
- Conduct regular inspection and maintenance on vehicles
Liberty Mutual recommends that whenever possible, student transportation is conducted via an approved school bus, driven by a qualified school bus driver.
– Steve Brown, Risk Control Technical Director, Public Entity
By paying parents to transport students in private passenger vehicles, districts may be entering into a contract where it is logistically impractical to adhere entirely to these controls.
Schools also should remain compliant with state laws pertaining to the use, maintenance, and inspection of vehicles used to transport students, as well as driver qualifications. This may not be feasible in the scenario when families are serving in place of third-party contractors. There may also be federal or state requirements on the types of vehicles permitted to transport students as well as protocols and safety requirements that must be followed.
Chris Craveiro, Senior Underwriting Manager, advises “Districts should consult with their legal counsel and their state’s Department of Education for compliance purposes before paying family members to drive students. If they do pay families to transport students, they may also want to consider [in consultation with counsel] creating and implementing additional controls, such as a formal release/waiver of liability or contract.”
Districts should consult with their legal counsel and their state’s Department of Education for compliance purposes before paying family members to drive students.
– Chris Craveiro, Senior Underwriting Manager, Liberty Mutual Insurance
Additional controls that are typically used when contracting third parties include:
- Proof of insurance (with minimal limits determined by school/legal) required and school named as an additional insured
- Background checks and protocols in accordance with the school’s sexual misconduct policy
- MVR review of drivers to ensure compliance with school’s acceptable driver criteria
- Ensuring the vehicles are safe/maintained with appropriate documentation (pre/post trip inspections, routine service, state required inspections for vehicles transporting students), operational safety equipment
- Documented and enforced COVID protocol
- Approved route guidance
- Conducting and documented driver training on safe/defensive driving
- Adequate supervision and enforcement of student code of conduct during transport
Families transporting students to school is not new. What is new is the payment to families to drive their own children, or even more concerning, other students outside their households. Once again, we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation due to COVID. However, in their resolve to recruit a new pool of drivers, it is important that districts consider potential unintended consequences and do not unintentionally create liability and coverage issues.
Liberty Mutual has been supporting public entities for more than 50 years with specialized underwriting, claims, service, and risk control teams. To learn more about how we can help your school navigate evolving educational risks, go to https://business.libertymutual.com/industries/public-entities/.