CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Back to school also means back to the drawing board as many schools try to map out their bus plans this semester.

At Shenendehowa Central School District, Transportation Director Al Karam says returning to full in-person schooling comes with some lessons learned from the pandemic.

“COVID or not, we’re going to continue disinfecting our school buses twice a day. Once after the morning runs and again at the end of the day,” Karam explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

One persistent problem is finding enough bus drivers. Districts across the state all concur they’re barely above water as the pool of applicants has dried up.

“The New York School Board Association of Superintendents released a study that shows 73.8 percent of the superintendents who were surveyed ranked that as their number one concern in terms of staffing,” explains David Christopher, the New York Association for Pupil Transportation Executive Director. “The trend we’re seeing is many retirees who would drive those buses were also those most susceptible to COVID, and so many were leaving the industry.”

“The foot traffic of people willing to come in and work has really gone down. Typically, we interview around 70 some odd people a year just to get about 20 to 25 drivers, and that has dropped dramatically to probably like 25 to 30 interviews a year,” Karam estimates.

Across the Capital Region, educators are looking at new approaches to student transportation and recruitment — from unique hiring fairs to utilizing partnerships with CDTA.

“We are the pioneers of doing test-drive-the-bus events, which has caught on regionally, state wide, and we’ve had people from outside the state call us and ask us how to go about doing that,” Karam says.

“Amsterdam is unique that we have our own transportation, we also have a third-party, and now we have CDTA. So there are three pieces that are making this work. Our hope is that by having those high school students on the CDTA buses, it will alleviate some of the issues as we move down to middle school and elementary,” says Richard Ruberti, superintendent at the Greater Amsterdam School District.

Many schools came up with emergency plans during the pandemic when quarantines contributed to a low driver turnout. Local schools tell NEWS10 those plans will prove useful until they can find more qualified bus drivers.

“We’ve formulated a plan that will instruct us on how to operate and timed capacity when we have 20 drivers out, when we have 25, 35, all the way up to 50. Last year on our worst day, we had 45 driver positions unfilled and we were able to fill that gap with the current staff, mechanics, and office staff who are licensed,” Karam explains.

“We have about eight to 10 positions open. We would like to have half a dozen subs available after that, but to become a licensed driver, if you don’t have a CDL it’s about a three month process. We go through 100 hours worth of training. You’re shadowing a veteran driver, becoming familiar with the routes, familiar with your bus, and then you have to sign up for the road test which oftentimes is a six week process,” explains South Colonie Central School District Superintendent Dr. Dave Perry. “We do have our applicants who are still going through the process operate as bus monitors and that way they’re also able to become familiar with the routes.”

Christopher says NYAPT has been instrumental in passing legislation and pushing for even further measures to alleviate the bus driver shortage. This includes removing the limitation for what retirees can earn as bus drivers. Where previously the cap was set at a $35,000 salary, the state has now suspended the limit until June 2023. The DMV is also piloting a third-party testing system so that school districts and bus operators can test their candidates themselves instead of waiting weeks for DMV test dates.

Finally, districts are determined to take a stand on safety. Dr. Perry says drivers break the law every time they try passing stopped buses.

“When you’re going up and down Central Avenue, you’ve got two lanes of highway. A bus may stop on the eastbound side and everyone needs to stop, whether you’re eastbound or westbound,” Perry says.

“Those flashing lights mean a child is either embarking or disembarking their school bus, and it is the worst fear of any bus operator that a child is injured or killed on their watch. There’s certainly plenty of evidence of near misses,” Christopher also says.

Starting Tuesday, South Colonie will be the first local district to install stop arm cameras on all their buses which will record license plates and fine any impatient drivers.

“There’s certainly devastation anytime there’s potential to injure a child getting off of us because somebody is illegally passing the school bus, so we want to do everything we can to keep our kids safe,” says Dr. Perry.

“The fines we’ve noticed aid tremendously with recidivism — preventing those second-time passers — and people have to remember too, these are children. They can be impulsive and more focused on getting to school or what they want to do when they get home. Drivers are licensed and, for the most part, adults and should be driving responsibly,” Christopher says.