Bus driver shortage delays school in South Hadley

  • Buses from Five Star Transportation pick up students from South Hadley High School at dismissal on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Buses from South Hadley Public Schools and from Five Star Transportation pick up students from the high school at dismissal on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Buses from Five Star Transportation pick up students from South Hadley High School at dismissal on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 1/10/2022 6:23:18 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — The morning bell rang late for South Hadley students on Monday after district leaders announced a two-hour delay because of a bus driver shortage.

South Hadley is the latest district to be hit by transportation staffing shortages that have been laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last fall in Holyoke, for example, school leaders requested the help of the National Guard to make sure students got to school amid a staffing shortage at contractor Van Pool Transportation Co. of Wilbraham. School systems from Boston to the Berkshires have faced similar challenges, resulting in everything from school delays to consolidated routes.

District officials in South Hadley shared few details about the delay on Monday. Superintendent Jahmal Mosley did not immediately respond to an email sent Monday morning.

“Buses will run with this 2-hour delay,” the district posted on Facebook on Sunday. “The 2-hour delay is because of bus driver shortages due to COVID illnesses.”

Like most school districts, South Hadley contracts with a private company for transportation services. The district’s transportation website lists Five Star Transportation as its transportation provider.

Todd Gazda, the executive director of the Collaborative for Educational Services, which provides support services to 36 school districts in Franklin and Hampshire counties, said that because all but the biggest school districts contract out their transportation work to private companies, they are vulnerable to the impacts of driver shortages without having much control over how the problem is solved.

“The bus driver shortage, this isn’t something new,” Gazda said. “This is a challenge we’ve been dealing with for years.”

COVID-19, however, has created a “perfect storm” that is resulting in transportation problems across the region. Gazda said he has heard of bus companies trying to offer signing bonuses for new drivers. He said the job presents a difficult schedule — usually worked as a split shift — and work environment.

“We were all kids and rode the buses,” Gazda said. “We know it’s a challenging environment trying to basically perform classroom management on a group of 50 kids while driving a bus. It’s not an easy job … Now you layer COVID on top of it and the job market, people getting sick and depleted staffing in general.”

Gazda said there are no “brilliant solutions” to immediately solve the problem. He said his organization and local districts have tried working with regional employment boards to help advertise jobs better, as well as increasing the number of trainings for drivers. There may also be legislative solutions the state should explore to alleviate the problems, he added.

“We need to make it easier to become a bus driver, and ensure we create a job that entices people to want to do it,” Gazda said. “It’s not a job just anybody can do.”

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459 represents bus drivers in many districts across the region, including Holyoke, Belchertown and Granby, though not in South Hadley.

Matt Szulborski, the union’s executive vice president, said that most of his morning Monday was spent talking to bus drivers about their working conditions amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases regionwide.

“What was already a difficult job is now a very difficult job and a very unsafe job,” Szulborski said.

Szulborski said that the bus driver shortage has been ongoing “for a very long time.” Now, drivers face even more uncertainty than previously. UFCW Local 1459 has bargained for personal protective equipment, safer working conditions and better pay for drivers, Szulborski said, but he added that drivers are still facing dangerous conditions as the omicron variant of the coronavirus drives a huge surge in COVID-19 cases across the region.

“It’s a scary time right now,” he said.

Szulborski said that districts and private companies should be offering better financial incentives for drivers, who he said are essential front-line employees doing important but dangerous work.

“I think that the drivers need support now from every possible avenue, from the companies they work for to the districts they serve,” Szulborski said. “People take for granted that these people pick your kids up for school every day and drop them off at home safely.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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