Rick Daynes' 10-year-old son Eli is sometimes late to school, but it's no one's fault: There's a bus shortage at the Poway Unified School District in San Diego, California, a reverberation of the pandemic that's still playing out at schools nationwide.
The delays were inconvenient for Daynes and his wife, who share five children. Eli, their youngest son, has autism and Down syndrome and rides a school bus with seven of his peers.
Daynes found a solution: He took the wheel.
"One day, I was talking to a bus driver and he mentioned that his working hours were 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.," Daynes tells TODAY.com. With a flexible schedule working in sales, he thought, "Maybe I can do this too.'"
The dad realized that becoming a bus driver is a lot more work than shuttling kids to and from school. Among other qualifications, drivers enroll in training courses to drive standard 40-foot school buses (a longer version of the vehicles that often transport students with disabilities) and in first-aid and CPR classes.
Daynes says he was tested by the California Department of Education, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Highway Patrol.
Taking the driving test with an instructor, he said, triggered his teenage anxiety.
"I thought, 'Holy cow this is so much more to this than I thought,'" he says. "I felt overwhelmed a lot."
Two-and-a-half months later, Daynes passed his final exam, a few months before the last day of school, although he didn't tell Eli.
"I didn't know if I would be driving Eli," he says. Luck intervened when a driver on Eli's route bid on an alternative schedule and Dynes snagged the opening.
"I was so nervous the night before," says Daynes. "It was like Christmas morning."
On May 3, Daynes snuck out of the house early to start his 5:30 a.m. shift. He picked up each child, with Eli being his last scheduled stop.
Eli couldn't believe it. "My wife told him, 'Daddy is driving the bus!' and he was so excited, he started flapping his hands," says Daynes.
Daynes took his job as bus driver to heart. "We'd sing or each kid chose the music — they usually liked the soundtracks from 'Frozen,' 'The Little Mermaid' or 'Moana,'" he says.
The passengers, says Daynes, were "angels."
"I take a lot of pride in knowing that I am the first person they interact with outside their homes," he says.
Last week school ended — but Daynes' commitment did not.
He was recently hired by the Poway Unified School District as a permanent bus driver for the fall.
"We need at least an additional 50 drivers to meet the student demand and eliminate our waitlists," a district spokesperson tells TODAY.com. "We have had some amazing people step forward — retired pilots, real estate agents, former truck drivers."
Daynes stepping up was an inspiration.
"Instead of waiting around or complaining, he did something about it," says the spokesperson. "The surprise element was icing on the cake ... seeing Eli’s reaction made us tear up!"
“I want parents to know that while I may not be able to completely relate to your situation, I will treat your kid as my own,” says Daynes, “and talk and sing along the way.”