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Teacher pulls double duty as school bus driver in Iowa district

The school bus driver shortage is a nationwide problem, but a district in Iowa is fixing it in its own way.

NEWTON, Iowa — It's not hard to become a favorite teacher, when class involves all fun and games.

"Here at school, I am the K-4 P.E. teacher at Emerson Hough Elementary, and Aurora Heights Elementary," Eric Vander Velden said. He said he's been with the district for 14 years, and has been teaching Physical Education for 17.

Vander Velden is a man of many job titles at the Newton Community School District. He's also a coach, a ref, whatever the school needs - and has been for nearly two decades.

But after all his time with the district, he is going back to a rookie gig.

"Driving a bus, when they need me," Vander Velden said, followed by a short laugh.

Vander Velden said he was simply answering the big, yellow call for help when the nation-wide bus driver shortage only worsened after the pandemic.

"Whatever it takes to get the kids to school and stuff because they deserve a chance to be at school all the time," Vander Velden said. "And a lot parents work in our community and they need a safe route to school. I thought it would be a great idea to help our community in any way I can."

The remarkable thing is that Vander Velden is not alone in the district. At Newton, multiple teachers and admin have stepped up to do the same.

Superintendent Tom Messinger said he does worry that he's asking his teachers and staffers to do too much.

"All the time, And I think that the pandemic has made that worry even stronger than it was before," Messinger said.

"Especially in my first year here to go to people and ask, 'hey I know you've got your Commercial Driver's License, what are your thoughts about this?' But they were great about it," Messinger added.

He said not one person turned him down so far on their drive to get some 20 drivers.

As for why the shortage is happening? Messinger said it felt like it was a combination of several things. He added that he knows the district's pay that works out to roughly 28 dollars and 40 cents an hour is competitive. However, he is also aware a bus driver's schedule is not conducive to having another full time job.

"It's a job that does not carry benefits. It's not a full time position so there's no insurance benefits to go along with that, so it's not ideal to do it," he said. 

Plus, many retirees who have gladly hit even the most rural parts of town have scaled back, because of COVID concerns.

In terms of this situation being only temporary, Messinger didn't give a definitive answer. 

"I hope so, but you know we have been struggling to find bus drivers for years. It's like a lot of other things, it's getting harder rather than easier to find them," he said. 

"I think it's going to get worse," Vander Velden said. "But hopefully with this story more people will start seeing that we need bus drivers everywhere in the nation."

If a solution rolls in anytime soon, it's clear, Vander Velden will miss being the kids' first and last face of the day.

However, until then, the wheels on his bus, and many others go round and round in good hands, and heart.