As school districts continue to struggle with a lack of bus drivers, Pennsylvania officials said Thursday they will be alerting hundreds of thousands of commercial driver’s license holders across the state of the need to fill the positions.
The Department of Transportation will mail information on the shortage and qualifications needed to become a driver to 375,000 CDL holders, officials said. Pennsylvania currently has 42,000 certified school bus drivers, down 4% from 2017.
“The need for bus drivers isn’t something we can fix overnight,” Education Secretary Noe Ortega said during a news conference, where he also noted districts could use federal pandemic aid to reimburse parents for transporting their children to school. “But by working together, we have tackled other complicated problems during the pandemic, and I believe we can make progress on this as well.”
The relative dearth of drivers has plagued districts across the region and nationally, complicating the return in some communities to full in-person instruction. In Philadelphia — where children have been stranded by no-show buses — Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has asked the Pennsylvania National Guard and Amazon for help, in addition to doubling payments to $300 per month for families who transport their own children to school.
Asked Thursday about whether the state had considered deploying the Guard — an approach taken in Massachusetts — Ortega said the state was looking to solutions in other states, but expressed concern about an “equity principle.”
“We cannot pick and choose as a state who we’re going to support or not, but to make sure we connect with a network of individuals. We’re trying to address this for all folks,” Ortega said.
He and Kurt Myers, the deputy secretary for driver and vehicle services at the Transportation Department, did not specify how many drivers might be needed to plug staffing holes.
But they hope to recruit new people — including those who might not already have a CDL. The state is opening new skills tests for those licenses on Mondays for four weeks beginning Oct. 18.
People older than 18 are eligible to become school bus drivers in Pennsylvania, provided they pass a physical examination, vision screening, and knowledge tests; complete 20 hours of training; and pass a road test. They must also pass criminal history and child abuse checks.
“We want to do everything we possibly can to expand the number of individuals with school bus endorsements to be able to get our children to school. That’s the critical part of all of this,” Myers said. “But you also want to make sure that we do it with safety in mind.”