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

Following a request from U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, new Frequently Asked Questions have been issued by the U.S. Department of Education on using emergency relief funds to address the nationwide bus driver shortage.

As districts continue to grapple with the shortage, Sen. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona urging the agency to issue clear guidance to states and school districts about using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, ESSER, funds to hire and retain school bus drivers.

Late last week, the Department of Education responded to the request and issued FAQs on whether states and schools can use ESSER and Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund money that was included in the three COVID recovery bills to retain and hire bus drivers.

According to the department’s response, state and local educational agencies can use these funds for retention bonuses, salary increases, training, obtaining a commercial driver’s license for new drivers, and to offset the cost of hiring additional bus drivers.

In New York, school districts have reported an average bus driver shortage of 15% to 20% this school year, according to Sen. Gillibrand’s office, causing additional burdens for students and families. Some bus drivers have retired early rather than risk getting sick, and issues around vaccines and masking requirements have led to drivers quitting and dissuaded potential drivers from applying for the jobs.

According to the Department of Education’s guidance, ESSER and GEER funds may be used to reimburse parents or guardians for transportation costs related to the pandemic or to offer a stipend for transportation costs, as long as they are reasonable and necessary.

“Across New York State and the country, families and schools are grappling with a school bus driver shortage that has made returning to in-person school even more difficult,” Sen. Gillibrand said in a statement. “I am pleased to announce that school districts and states are able to use federal funds provided by Congress in the COVID relief bills to recruit and retain school bus drivers.”

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