Schools can use relief funds to address bus driver shortage

A bus advertises the availability of bus driver positions outside a school in the General Brown Central School District over the summer. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

DEXTER — With a new school year well underway, many north country school districts are still struggling to find bus drivers, both full-time and substitutes, which adds to the stress of operating schools amid a global pandemic. Many districts are offering sign-on bonuses and competitive wages in the hopes of enticing new recruits.

General Brown School District is using online messaging as well as physical signs, such as banners attached to school buses, in its recruiting efforts. The district is looking to hire both regular shift and substitute bus drivers, offering sign-on and referral bonuses as well as training. It is also seeking substitute teachers and teachers’ aides.

Due to a lack of staffing after those scheduled to work had to call off for various reasons, the district had to close for the day on Friday. The General Brown district has been monitoring anticipated staff absences across the district daily, and when the final absence was reported Thursday evening that it simply could not cover, the decision was made to announce the transition to remote-only that night in an attempt to allow time for families to make child care arrangements for Friday.

“If we’re absolutely in desperation mode, we do condense runs, which we did toward the end of last week,” said district superintendent Barbara J. Case. “What we do is shut down one run and then farm those kids out to the other bus runs, so our drivers are really picking up the extra slack for this because they’re they’re taking on extra students that are not a part of their normal run. As a result, kids are getting home a little bit later, but we have told parents that this could be coming and they’ve been prepared for it.”

Even with three runs already condensed, it was not enough to avoid closure Friday after the last employee called off Thursday, which meant another run would have needed to be condensed — something that was simply not possible given the amount of available staff.

The district will try to give as much advance notice as possible if it needs to close or go remote again, but notice may come on the mornings that bus runs are scheduled to start — this is the reality of the current situation, and Ms. Case wants families to treat such instances as they would snow days, adapting to the situation and coming up with necessary alternative child care.

Recruiting since the summer, the district still has many unfilled bus driver positions. Even so, the General Brown School District is doing everything in its power to keep school open, Ms. Case said, including condensing bus routes and asking teachers to cover additional classes beyond their own teaching responsibilities. Principals have also stepped in if necessary. In the case of last week, the district was short on both drivers and substitute teachers.

“Our prospects for Monday were much brighter, knowing that less people had to have time off, and that’s exactly what happened,” Ms. Case said. “Employees have their own families and had illness and whatever reasons they needed to take off, and that’s why Friday was such a problem for us. We are still monitoring, we will have to monitor every day of this school year until we can get more bus drivers hired; and substitute teachers for that matter.”

As a result of closing Friday, Ms. Case put out a letter to families on the district website that brought in some messages from parents volunteering to substitute for teachers and aides.

The district had been short four full-time bus drivers for quite some time, with the positions covered by mechanics, substitutes and mechanic helpers, but has recently hired another driver.

Barring any more complications, three bus drivers are what is still very needed for the district, as well as some more substitutes and aides. Substitute drivers and extra bus drivers to cover if others call off are still very much in demand as well. Right now things are still a bit tight, but with this new driver, they will definitely be eased a bit, Ms. Case said.

“If we could get more that would be better because we are struggling with some of our after school runs,” Ms. Case said. “When we have to condense runs, it eliminates an after school run, an opportunity for bused kids to stay after school.”

A few years ago, the state Education Department adopted federal rules that require public school bus drivers to have a great deal of mechanical knowledge about the bus. The road test requires the candidates to do a pre-trip inspection, part of which is a thorough inspection of mechanical operations of the bus, similar to what a truck or a coach driver would need to do.

A new class is coming that will be required for all new bus drivers starting in February 2022, which Ms. Case said she believes is another 30 hours, which means more time that someone needs to put into preparing to be a bus driver aside from their training that they need to go through as well. If they need to be trained, it could be a six- to eight-month process, depending on how familiar and how comfortable they are becoming a bus driver, and then eventually passing their test.

“We’re certainly not willing to forsake the safety of having somebody that is familiar with the bus and knows how to keep the bus safe while it’s driving down the road, but it’s just a lot of bureaucracy that makes it much more difficult for a profession that already has a shortage,” Ms. Case said.

In an effort to combat the shortage and deliver solutions for districts, Jefferson-Lewis BOCES engaged Transportation Advisory Services to help with looking at other ways to address the issue. Included in the participating districts is General Brown. TSA will examine staffing, fleet, equipment, facilities, contracts, operating services, and software in an effort to provide a regional solution. Ms. Case said if anyone else also has a creative solution for the district to help with staffing shortages, General Brown is certainly willing to consider it.

Since the summer, the district has been offering incentives for bus drivers, including a $500 referral incentive as a bonus for current employees should they refer somebody and that person ultimately ends up working for the district over a set amount of time, which will be paid over the course of the school year. There are also sign-on bonuses for both trained and untrained drivers.

If a driver comes to the district and does not need training, they can receive a $2,500 sign-on bonus along with competitive hourly wages. If they need training, the district will pay for training and give them a $1,500 sign-on bonus. General Brown is also encouraging staff to consider referring themselves, and then the district would cross train them. For example, if they’re a cafeteria worker or on the maintenance staff, if they’re willing to refer themselves, they would get the $500 bonus as well as the $1,500 sign on bonus for going out as a bus driver and then the district would split their time between their various responsibilities.

While the district will do what is in its power to remain open and cover all necessary bus runs, for when the district needs to make the switch to remote-only, families are encouraged to complete an Urgent Needs Form under Quick Links on the district website should they need any assistance from the school to make these transition days easier, such as computers or lunch. Families can also fill out the form if they are in need of help with electric or heating bills and don’t know where to turn to due to the district’s collaborative relationships with many local agencies that can assist families.

“We found that the pandemic made people feel very isolated and we wanted to help our families,” Ms. Case said. “One of the positives of the pandemic is that we realize we’re all a community and we all need to support our community together.”

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