A national school bus driver shortage, worsened by the pandemic, has left school districts around the region scrambling to find transportation for thousands of students, the ripple effect widening as the start of the year rapidly approaches.
The driver shortage has led to significant school schedule changes in the Philadelphia School District that have drawn ire from parents, teachers, and city leaders. Bus driver shortages have roiled Pittsburgh public schools, too, forcing them to push their start date back.
The Camden school system has notified about 850 families that the district has not lined up transportation for their children when school starts Sept. 7, said Superintendent Katrina McCombs. The district provides transportation for about 2,500 students.
“We are working around the clock and will continue to do so,” McCombs said. “However, at this point, there may be some students who are without transportation for their first day of school.”
The shortage has put drivers in high demand, with districts and bus contractors offering lucrative bonuses and incentives — some to parents — in the hopes of recruiting new hires, or luring retirees back into service to fill routes.
“There are so many routes out there not covered,” said Chloe Williams, president of the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association. “If 10 good people walked in today, we could hire them and get them on the road.”
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the start-time changes were necessary to streamline bus operations. Prior to this year, there were dozens of different bell schedules across the city. Now, the district is moving to just three start times.
“We have to guarantee that we can transport children and get them to school on time,” Hite has said.
In New Jersey, districts are required to provide transportation for elementary and middle school students who live more than two miles from their school, and high schoolers who live more than 2½ miles from school. Statewide, about 800,000 students are transported to and from school by bus on a typical day, according to the state Department of Education.
In a letter to parents, Deptford School Superintendent Arthur E. Dietz said the Gloucester County district had little choice but to change the start time at its middle and high schools because of the driver shortage. The district has been unable to hire new drivers or acquire a contract with local bus companies, he said.
“While we know changing the times is not ideal, this was the best solution to ensure all students will be transported to and from school,” Dietz wrote.
After being dropped by its longtime bus contractor, Burlington Township schools solicited bids for routes and rental buses in August but received no response, Superintendent Mary Ann Bell wrote to parents. The district plans to get approval for an emergency contract to temporarily rent 24 buses, she said.
Bell said the district also plans to hire a dozen additional bus drivers and set up a dispatch office, which was previously handled by the contractor. She believes the district will be able to cover 20 of its 24 routes with drivers transporting three to four groups of students, doubling back or adjusting pickup and drop-off times.
Bell said the district is also trying to figure out transportation for its athletic teams and for students who participate in extracurricular activities. Several coaches hold the required commercial driver’s license and may be asked to transport teams if the district is able to acquire bus vehicles, she said.
Beth Jaworski, who has two sons in Burlington Township schools, said she plans to drive them to school before rushing to her job as a school nurse in Hamilton. The district previously provided busing as a courtesy because the boys live just outside the mileage requirement.
“I think it is outrageous that this is happening at the eleventh hour,” said Jaworski, 46. She said her sons, eighth and 10th graders, will have to walk home from school, just under two miles because she will still be at work at dismissal.
For the first time this fall, the Philadelphia School District will pilot a program paying parents up to $1,500 per household per school year for driving their children to school in lieu of district-provided transportation. Camden offers up to $1,000, but it is unclear how many will do that because they must have a $1 million auto insurance liability, McCombs said.
Williams, who heads the contractor-owned school bus association, which has about 11,000 members, said contractors across the country have struggled to fill vacancies, despite offering paid training and signing bonuses up to $2,500. Since 2019, school bus driver salaries have increased about 20%, she said.
When the pandemic hit, some drivers who are typically older retirees, stopped working because of health concerns, Williams said. Some returned after getting COVID-19 vaccinations, she said.
“Some are hesitant to come back,” said Williams. She said her family-owned bus company, B.R Williams Inc. in Woodstown, has been able to cover its routes in Salem, Gloucester, and Cumberland Counties.
Williams said it typically takes about 50 to 60 days for a bus driver applicant to complete a lengthy written test, practice driving, and take a road test. A drug test and background exam are also required.
In Pennsylvania, some drivers aren’t coming back to work because they don’t want to mask and others are concerned about the health ramifications of being around large numbers of people, said Ryan Dellinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association.
“We’ve taken an already somewhat limited driver pool and shrunken it further to make things worse,” said Dellinger, who estimated that 1.5 million children in Pennsylvania rely on yellow buses to get to school.
West Berlin Bus has enough drivers for its 25 routes, mostly transporting special-needs students in South Jersey, but had to turn down new service requests, said Vinny Marziano, operations manager. The company had about 90 drivers before the pandemic and has about 55 currently. The company has offered retention bonuses.
“I don’t have any more employees to put anywhere else,” Marziano said. “There are no new employees coming.”
The Cheltenham school district has seen a 25% decrease in available bus drivers since the pandemic, said Derek Platt, the district’s director of transportation.
“That has just a really big impact on our day-to-day operations,” Platt said. “We still have 100% students going to all of the schools, but 25% fewer drivers” to transport them.
To solve for fewer drivers, the district has had to rework all of its routes, putting kids on buses for longer stretches and assigning buses at maximum capacity, despite COVID-19. Students are required to wear masks on buses and the vehicles will be sanitized, Platt said.
“People are concerned about social distancing on the bus, but the reality is, there is no possibility of social distancing on the vehicles,” said Platt. “If you want the students to get to school on time, there’s no option to do that.”
There may be fewer buses, but they will exist. Williams issued a public appeal to motorists to look out for the sight they’ve barely seen in more than a year: “Please pay attention for the big yellow school bus.”
Staff writer Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.