Wanted: More school bus drivers

  • Mike Sheehan checks the oil of a school bus at JFK Middle School as he prepares to pick up children and bring them home Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • School buses leave the JFK Middle School parking lot as they begin afternoon pick-ups on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mike Sheehan, a school bus driver, and Tammy Lieber, the transportation supervisor for Northampton public schools, gather in the JFK Middle School parking lot as they get ready to begin the afternoon pick-ups on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mike Sheehan, a school bus driver, and Tammy Lieber, the transportation supervisor for Northampton public schools, meet in the JFK Middle School parking lot as they get ready to begin afternoon pickups on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/17/2021 4:30:11 PM

Getting enough qualified bus and van drivers to bring children to and from school each day can be difficult even in the best of times, with extensive training needed and driving often done in shifts split between mornings and afternoons.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the situation has become even more challenging for school districts and private contractors that are looking for help — especially given the fact, as administrators acknowledge, the job isn’t for everybody.

“We say lovingly, ‘If your blood runs yellow, you’ll drive a school bus,’” says Tammy Lieber, transportation supervisor for the Northampton public schools.

This fall, Lieber is seeing firsthand how the pandemic is exacerbating driver shortages, both for the buses owned and operated by the district, as well as ones overseen by the Easthampton-based Durham School Services.

“They’re having a hard time hiring,” Lieber said.

It is Lieber’s responsibility to make sure the 36 buses that travel in the morning and the 15 to 20 vans for out-of-district students and others are staying on the roads every day.

“I’m hoping things will get better, but there are a lot of challenges,” Lieber said.

Van Pool Transportation Co. of Wilbraham also is having problems getting help, which Lieber said means that foster children and others who rely on the service have occasionally missed school days.

The limited number of Van Pool drivers already caused issues in Holyoke when the school year began. Holyoke requested members of the National Guard to assist with making sure students get to their schools daily.

“There were some delays in the first couple of weeks until the National Guard came on,” said Daniel Desrochers, director of communications for Holyoke schools.

Desrochers said the National Guard makes an arrangement with Van Pool, which specializes in out-of-district transportation for the district, with each van able to accommodate up to eight students.

So far, the use of these, which could be ending this month as the company has added drivers, has worked well. “It’s been a pleasant experience for students,” Desrochers said. “We really appreciate the support the National Guard has offered our students.”

Desrochers said the rest of the fleet of conventional school buses, including 22 large buses and 26 mini-buses, has been running smoothly. As in Northampton, the contractor is Durham, and Desrochers said students are getting from their homes to school and back again without problems.

Hadley public schools have not been faced with any trouble yet, but Superintendent Annie McKenzie said a series of factors led to the need for substitute drivers this week, and she shared with families the possibility of buses not picking up children.

“In this kind of market, there’s no room for anything to happen,” McKenzie said

A spare driver was located this week to take on a route.

“Our contingency planning is for if we had to take a bus out of service,” McKenzie said. “We’re trying to plan because these are labor shortages that we haven’t seen in a while.”

When someone unfamiliar needs to be brought on, Lieber said in Northampton the strategy is to have that person accompanied by a second professional.

“Subs sometimes don’t know the route, so we’ve asked that a second person be on board with a GPS,” Lieber said. Ongoing construction is also another matter, particularly on Damon Road where a number of students live.

Amherst schools appear to be set for the time being as more drivers are coming on board.

Debbie Westmoreland, director of communication and operations for the district, said multiple van and bus drivers have been hired who are currently completing their training and licensing requirements.

“While there has been a shortage of bus and van drivers across the state, our district has successfully navigated the challenge through the hiring efforts of our human resources department and by working with our bus contractor, Five Star,” Westmoreland said.

Michael Wood, interim superintendent for the Hatfield public schools, said the district has been fortunate to have no transportation issues, though it has been hard to find substitutes to work when teachers and paraprofessionals aren’t able to.

Lieber was part of a conference call this week with the Massachusetts Association of Pupil Transportation, where suggestions were put out for preventing a crisis, with participants observing that some states are trying to lighten the requirement of commercial drivers. But since school buses and vans have precious cargo, there is little appetite to potentially compromise safety.

“We have really great laws that protect kids,” Lieber said.

Job fairs and sign-on bonuses are among strategies to lure people into the driver’s seat, and Lieber said she believes people will be found.

“You have to learn to be patient,” Lieber said.


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