When Monica Wallace practiced driving a school bus on July 14 – with Ferndale School District bus driver and trainer Cheryl Watts guiding her from the front seat – it felt in many ways like a traditional driver’s license test. But her training was much more extensive than a teenager learning how to change lanes.
At the railroad crossing on Washington Street, Wallace took the bus to a full stop and went through all the state-required motions, just like she would if the bus was carrying dozens of students. She opened the front door to hear any possible trains, said, “quiet please, railroad crossing,” and counted to five slowly before resuming the drive. Watts congratulated Wallace on following all the correct steps.
“This is a really intense training,” Wallace said. “There is a lot behind being a bus driver that is maybe overlooked or underappreciated, and I have a whole new respect for school bus drivers.”
Wallace is one of a group of trainees who earned their school bus driver licenses this summer and joined Ferndale School District’s transportation team. Wallace is the only one of the new drivers who has driven a bus of any kind, but all of them were excited to learn the skills necessary to shuttle students to and from class this upcoming school year.
“I’m super excited to have a rapport with the kids,” new driver Samantha Jorgensen said in July. “Maybe I can make a difference in somebody's life, put a smile on their face.”
The new drivers come from a variety of backgrounds: Jorgensen and Campbell Parker spent years delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service. Wallace briefly drove for Whatcom Transit Authority, but has since been a stay-at-home mom for over 20 years. Dan Barry is a substitute paraeducator for Ferndale schools.
“I’m pursuing a degree in teaching, so I can take online classes during the break between (driving and being a paraeducator),” Barry said.
There are also a variety of reasons why they became school bus drivers. Those reasons range from being a part of the school community, to getting to work with their children or grandchildren, to having a post-retirement adventure.
“I’m stepping outside my comfort zone – dealing with a bunch of kids instead of a couple grandkids,” said Parker. “But you get to get paid and take significant time off, like in the summer.”
The new drivers joined the district as substitute bus drivers, filling in for any of the 37 current drivers if needed. Substitute bus drivers are needed basically every school day, according to Tamara Frost from the transportation department.
“They are vital,” Frost said of substitute drivers. “It is so important for our existing drivers to be able to take a sick day.”
Learning to drive a school bus is quite a challenge. Even without students, the vehicles are about five times heavier than a Toyota Camry, and about two and a half times as long.
Also, unlike most cars, some school bus’s front wheels are located behind where the driver sits, adding an extra degree of difficulty to tight turns. Because of this, Watts tells bus drivers to go around corners at less than 7 miles per hour.
“If you go too fast, you won’t make the corner,” she said. “You’ll overshoot into someone’s yard, or you’ll hit the car that’s coming the other way.”
Navigating Ferndale’s roundabouts – a must for going up and down Vista Drive – can also be tricky in a school bus, Watts said.
“On a bus, there’s no such thing as driving in a circular motion, you’re just doing right turns,” she said.
There are many different rules for bus drivers, which all boil down to two main points of emphasis: defensive driving and safety.
“Everything we do is about safety,” Watts said.
Trainees also spend more than 60 hours of state- and federally-required training in the classroom with Ferndale schools bus driver Brent Richards. Before any of the trainees even sit in the drivers’ seat, Richards goes over all the various precautions and steps bus drivers must take. This includes a session on how to properly inspect a school bus before taking it out on the road each day – a ritual that the state requires drivers to demonstrate during their license exam.
Despite the degree of difficulty, the trainees and Watts still managed to have a sense of humor about learning to drive school buses. At the end of her test drive in July, Wallace asked Watts, “Do you want me to try and park it?”
Watts immediately quipped, “Don’t try it, do it!”
They both laughed, and Wallace perfectly backed into her parking spot near the district transportation garage.