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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / A school bus drives down Nashville Street on Wednesday, September 8, 2021 in Ringgold, Ga.

School districts nationwide have reported a school bus driver shortage in recent weeks as the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant continues to drive a back-to-school surge of positive cases and quarantines.

Now, districts in Northwest Georgia and Southeast Tennessee say they are facing similar struggles as they work to get students to and from school.

In Whitfield County Schools in Georgia, there are 117 bus routes. Of those, 22 are without a regular driver and have been all year. Another 10 to 12 routes are expected to be open on a daily basis because of drivers calling in sick or being otherwise unavailable.

Some of these absences are normal and expected at the start of a new school year, district spokesperson Kristina Horsley said, but some of them are a result of COVID-19.

"There are always open driver positions at the start of a new year, but this is something that's been a problem off and on since the pandemic started," she said. "Hopefully we'll soon be on the other side of all that."

Because of the driver shortage, some Whitfield County Schools bus routes have doubled in length to accommodate more riders. The longer routes mean students take longer getting home, but it also ensures all students have access to school transportation.

Dalton Public Schools, also located in Whitfield County, reported a similar bus driver shortage. The district contracts its buses through First Student, the same transportation vendor that provides buses for Hamilton County Schools in Tennessee.

Safety and transportation coordinator Jeff Wells in Whitfield said he was told the company itself was experiencing a driver shortage, which trickled down to the district itself.

First Student manager Anita Brown did not respond to messages asking about the shortage Wednesday. Hamilton County Schools spokesperson Cody Patterson did not respond to messages left on his voicemail and at the office on Monday and Tuesday related to the shortage.

Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines said COVID-19 has affected staffing at district schools off and on since the start of the pandemic, however, he said he did not think this year's bus driver shortage was caused by COVID.

Instead, he said, the problem is not new, and the district has struggled with attracting potential drivers and attendants for "several years."

(READ MORE: North Georgia COVID-19 surge leads to substitute teacher shortage)

"The issue has compounded over the years moving from drivers choosing to become over-the-road drivers for companies at a higher rate of pay to a loss of interest for drivers as they face the uncertainties associated with carrying students two times per day," Raines said. "Many of our drivers typically drive for the option of personal insurance. This has become an issue, as well as many of our staff are getting closer to retirement age."

To draw in new applicants, Raines said the district adjusted its pay scale and is offering monthly attendance incentives for employees.

Catoosa County Public Schools Superintendent Denia Reese said the district has 12 open driver positions, which is typical for this time during the school year.

Tennessee's Cleveland City Schools and Meigs County Schools have also reported being tight on school bus drivers this year.

Meigs County School Safety Supervisor Tad Roberts said the district was offering an incentive plan for new drivers at the start of this school year to encourage new people to take an interest in the job.

An employment listing for bus drivers is posted to the Meigs County Schools website, saying the need is urgent. Interested people should call Roberts at 423-334-5793.

The National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the National School Transportation Association released the results of a joint survey related to the nation's bus driver shortage last month.

According to the results, 51% of respondents in schools nationwide described their school district's bus driver shortage as "severe" or "desperate."

Roughly three-quarters of all respondents also indicated the shortage was getting "much worse," and about 65% of respondents indicated that the bus driver shortage was their No. 1 school-related concern.

One percent of the survey's respondents said the shortage was not a problem in their district.

(READ MORE: Teacher cheered 'no mask wearing' in song at Dalton schools)

National School Transportation Association Executive Director Curt Macysyn said the organization was "vitally concerned" about the short-term implications of the shortage.

"This survey reaffirms individual feedback that we have heard from our members that both in-district and contract school bus operators are facing serious challenges with respect to staffing of the driver pool this fall," Macysyn said.

Those challenges have led local school districts to get a bit more creative with their approach to getting kids to school. In some districts, bus drivers are taking on new or different routes to ensure every student has reliable transportation. In others, the district itself has added new incentives to draw in people who might be interested in becoming bus drivers.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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