Kim Coomey’s alarm goes off at 5:08 every morning. It’s a later start than most of her coworkers get.
“I’m not your typical driver because I like my sleep,” she laughed. Fortunately, her commute to Monroe-Woodbury School District’s bus garage is less than three miles from her home.
She gets there by 5:30 and grabs the keys to her yellow school bus for “pre-trip,” a routine full-body check of the bus before embarking on her route. She makes sure nothing is leaking or hanging from the bus, and inspects the horn, wipers, tires, fluids, and emergency exits.
At 6:27 a.m. she picks up her first group of sleepy high school students. She cheerfully greets each one.
“Every kid gets a ‘good morning’ when they get on the bus. And at the beginning of the year, maybe three of them respond to me,” she said. “But I do it every day. And now when I say ‘good morning,’ I get a ‘good morning’ back.”
Between 6 and 9 a.m., Coomey makes 43 stops across three routes: one to the high school, one to Sapphire Elementary, and one to Central Valley Elementary. It’s her job to get over 100 students to school safely. In the afternoon, she starts all over again to drive them home.
After 17 years on the job, she still loves what she does.
“It’s such an awesome responsibility,” said Coomey.
Most buses don’t have monitors to act as a second pair of eyes; usually the only adult aboard is the driver, shuttling twenty to fifty students to school.
On top of knowing which gears to shift into when weather is bad and how to check for mechanical issues, drivers are also managing students, much like teachers do in classrooms. Coomey is regularly reminding kids about seat belts and how to safely get on and off the bus in traffic.
She’s also laid down some ground rules: the students know they cannot call her for help “unless someone is hurt, sick, or bleeding,” she said. “You can’t yell up to me because Johnny took your toy and hasn’t given it back, because that takes my eyes off the road. The most important job when I’m driving is to have my eyes on the road.”
The real challenge isn’t the kids or maneuvering a 30-foot vehicle. It’s looking out for cars that do not follow school bus traffic laws.
The bus stop
When a school bus starts flashing yellow lights, it’s slowing down and preparing to stop – which means vehicles on the road with the bus should be doing the same. When the lights flash red, all vehicles, in all lanes, are required to come to a stop at least twenty feet away from the bus.
At each of her 43 bus stops, “my head is on a swivel,” said Coomey. “Here you are, trying to load a bus. You’re looking to make sure cars are doing the right thing, that they’re stopping...I can’t tell you how many cars don’t stop. It drives me crazy.”
When it comes to reporting illegal passing, school bus drivers are the first line of defense. Prior to the pandemic, Nancy Farber drove for various Sussex County, N.J., districts over the course of her 25-year-career.
“I would lay on my horn as long and loud as I possibly could to alert everyone that a car was passing,” she said. She would then try to copy down the car’s license plate, which she would later pass along to a supervisor.
Last year, the West Milford school district took this strategy to the next level. Their drivers take down the car’s plate and make a note of where the violation occurred. Each week, the district’s Transportation Supervisor Karen Wilm sends an Excel sheet of violations to the West Milford Township Police Department -- six, on average. The police then monitor the locations where the violations occur and look for the reported vehicles to issue summonses.
Other districts, like Monroe-Woodbury, have cameras consistently recording outside their bus. When a car doesn’t stop for her bus, Coomey wails on her horn to alert students -- and try to stop the vehicle. At the same time, she presses a button to pinpoint the violation on the tape. It happens to her bus about once a week.
Across the district, however, illegal passing is reported daily. The license plates are given to the DMV and local police.
“I have a compilation of many, many videos that would just make your hair stand up,” said Monroe-Woodbury’s Director of Transportation Dawn Russell. “It’s very, very frightening, which is why the drivers work so hard training the kids how to protect themselves.”
Up for the job
Meanwhile, districts across the country are still grappling with a bus driver shortage. Some, like Farber, decided to stop during the pandemic. Others are simply retiring. There are various job openings throughout the tri-state-area at local districts and bus companies. Most are part-time, offering between $20 and $25 per hour. Many, particularly those in school districts, offer benefits.
Between recruiting and an extensive training program, Russell estimated that it costs about $10,000 to get a new driver behind the wheel.
“You want people that are credible and reliable, and you’re trusting your children with them,” said Russell. “A lot of teachers may live outside the district, but a majority of the bus drivers...they’re your neighbors driving your kids...they’re your community.”
Across the district, illegal passing is reported daily. The license plates are given to the DMV and local police.