CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. (NEWS10) — School districts are looking anywhere and everywhere for solutions to the nationwide bus driver shortage. The New York Association for Pupil Transportation reports that a survey of their members shows 79% say they’re suffering moderate to severe bus issues and all listed transportation as their top priority.
“Not only are they short of drivers, but applicants aren’t coming in the door,” explains Executive Director Dave Christopher. “That’s the problem that there’s not even a pool of people to train like there has been in past years.”
Some districts seem to be doing better than others. Schenectady City School District says its routes have not suffered the intense delays others across the Capital Region are working through.
“We set ourselves up pretty well pre-COVID. One of the things we’ve done is we have about six vendors that work as a team to service our students. For example, today we had one vendor who’s driver tested positive for COVID and they reached out to another of our vendors who was able to cover that route for them so there was no service interruption for the students,” explains Transportation Supervisor Al Valachovic.
However, Valachovic says there was a seventh vendor who backed out right before the start of the Fall semester due to its own driver shortage, leaving a portion of Schenectady’s students without options.
“I noticed we had some shortages in the second tier, which would be the middle and high school,” he explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.
Those students are now getting to school thanks to CDTA’s Universal Access program. CEO Carm Basile says talks have been in the works with Schenectady City School District for many years, but they kicked plans into high gear to fill gaps left by the pandemic.
“We look at those areas where we already have a strong presence. We then supplement that with additional routes and service on the streets of Schenectady, so we see that as a win for everyone in the community,” he explains.
There are now nine routes that service more than 500 SCSD students. Valachovic says two weeks before the start of school, students were evaluated for the program based on their age and need. Those eligible received a free CDTA access card, a code of conduct, and details on the routes to take to make it to their school.
“That card is live all the time, so they can get to and from school, they can get to and from an afterschool activity, they can get to and from a job,” Basile adds. He says the City School District of Albany and Troy High School have had established partnerships with CDTA to transport students for several years. Many more districts participate in the program informally by purchasing ride cards for students.
“Can we do everything that the yellow school buses are doing? No, but we can take some of the burden off of the yellow school bus provider and I think make it for a much easier way for students to move through the community,” Basile says.
NEWS10 has covered bus issues in the Greater Amsterdam School District where parents say they’re waiting up to two hours past dismissal for their kids to get home. Basile says CDTA doesn’t service Montgomery County yet, but there’s already a potential plan ready and waiting for them too.
“Sort of parked ready to go, we’ve already been talking to them about their need and in our planned route networks, how we could incorporate the high school,” Basile says.
However, even CDTA faces its own hardships brought on by both the pandemic and the long running driver shortage that started before COVID-19 complicated the profession. “We too are having a driver shortage. Fifty percent of our employees have been here less than five years. I’ve never seen that,” Basile says.
Christopher says he’s heard suggestions to eliminate CDL requirements for school bus drivers or to follow the Massachusetts governor’s lead and mobilize the National Guard. However, Christopher says you can’t put just anyone behind the wheel of student safety.
“The CDL is necessary to make sure we’re putting safe school bus drivers on the road. Anything to ‘water down’ the talent pool, if you will, when our children’s safety is at stake, that’s not something we can support,” he says. “In regards to the National Guard option, there are specific training requirements when transporting small children. You also need to consider each district has their own requirements for drivers.”
He says there are hopeful signs that more applications are coming in, but that is not a solution to this semester’s transportation problems. “By the time you do all the required training, the road testing, and all that, it takes about two to two and a half months from the time someone walks in the door to the time they’re ready to go out solo,” he explains.
He suggests it’s better to reevaluate conditions for entering the job. “The surveys tell us that the pay is a problem, benefits, you know, the amount of work it takes to get a CDL license. All those kinds of things need to be looked at in terms of a long-term approach,” he says. “You look at it on an hourly basis and the pay might be good, but you need to understand these are part-time jobs. A person will drive in the morning or afternoon and there’s about a four hour gap in the middle.”
He says whatever avenue your local school district decides to take, it’s important to be patient. “Be kind to school transportation providers, people who are out there every day. They showed up for this, and I think we need to understand that they are under a lot of stress,” Christopher concludes.