An Empty Tank for School Bus Drivers
MASSACHUSETTS – Amongst bus driver shortages within Massachusetts and beyond, officials have been forced to turn to the National Guard to provide transportation to school.
Photo Courtesy: Robin Lubboc/WBUR
As COVID-19 has raged and festered on for the past two years, many important jobs have become increasingly void of workers throughout the United States. One such case which directly affects children is the lack of bus drivers, says the National School Transportation Association. As of December 2021, nearly all schools were fully reopened, teaching students full-time and in-person, announced U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
“As a nation, we’re at a place where we do not have to choose between reducing our children’s risk of COVID-19 and keeping them connected to the supports that they need… I am heartened that our schools are nurturing our children’s social and emotional development, and their academic success in the place where we know children learn best—in their classrooms with their peers and teachers,” said Secretary Cardona in a statement December 15.
However, this positive news was marred by the ever looming issue of staffing, especially for low paying jobs that lacked allure even prior to a global pandemic. Drivers aren’t paid enough, and many are older and therefore unwilling to risk infection, says The Washington Post. Alternatively, many who were once bus drivers had to get other jobs during the pandemic and are reluctant to return to driving.
To draw more drivers to school districts, the U.S. Department of Transportation partnered with the Department of Education to declare that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) would give states the opportunity to disregard the requirement that school bus drivers pass the “under the hood” engine components section of the commercial driver’s license (CDL) skills test. This temporary notice, taking effect January 3, will remain until March 31, 2022, and aims to encourage more workers to become bus drivers. The waiver allows testers to drive intrastate school buses, but does not allow them license for any other commercial vehicle.
The Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg said in a statement, “This federal waiver will help states that are short on bus drivers… By allowing states to focus on the testing requirements that are critical to safety, we will get additional, qualified drivers behind the wheel to get kids to school safely.”
Additionally, many states have been implementing the American Rescue Plan which is providing $130 billion for childhood education to provide methods for students to get to school and learn in an in-person environment.
For example, the Superintendent of the District of Philadelphia, PA has enacted the Parent Flat Rate Program which offers $300/month for parents to drive their kids to school.
In Connecticut in September, Superintendent Melinda Smith of Thompson Public schools was forced to take kids online after she learned half her district’s bus drivers had either tested positive for COVID or were quarantining, says The Washington Post
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, there has been so much disruption in school transportation that some school bus companies have given free training and thousands of dollar bonuses to draw new applicants, says the Washington Post. Between September 14 to November 5, Governor Charlie Baker responded to school assistance requests by repurposing the National Guard as bus drivers. More than 230 Guard members drove throughout 13 municipalities until early November when civilian drivers took up the responsibility, allowing the National Guard to move onto other operations.
Lt. Governor Karyn Polito said in a statement, “Time and again throughout its history, the Massachusetts National Guard has stepped up to serve the communities of our Commonwealth, and that has never been more true than during the last year and a half… We appreciate the professionalism and dedication of the members of the guard who supported this mission, and thank them for their service.”
Boston also had to deal with its own bus driver crisis. In September, the issue was a point of contention for mayoral candidates as they argued about the proper way to get school started again. As the academic year began, many buses were late picking up students, and some did not show up at all, says NBC Boston. School districts were forced to warn parents that any inability for a pick-up would be communicated the morning of. Alternative modes of getting to school were also encouraged, such as by carpooling, having family members take them, or walking or biking, says ABC7News. Districts became so desperate for drivers that they began offering $50/day bonuses for drivers to come to work. Many of the positions were once again filled by National Guard members as the problem was slowly mitigated.
Many job industries are suffering as people are returning back to work after nearly two years of the pandemic. Unfortunately, some of the most crucial jobs, such as getting kids to school, have been hit the hardest due to a combination of the risks of the pandemic and the lack of substantial pay in those positions. Unless school districts can find ways to increase salaries or secure COVID-19 safety for their drivers, the shortage is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.