Times Union Article
Written By: Rachel Silberstein
New York schools are struggling to hire bus drivers and other non-instructional staff as they prepare to reopen at full capacity in early September.
More than 40 percent of school districts anticipate a transportation staffing gap between 15 percent and 20 percent, according to a statewide survey conducted in June and July by the New York School Bus Contractors Association.
While drivers are often in high demand, "COVID didn't help the situation," said Tammy Mortier, the association's executive director. "Many of the drivers are not returning, whether it's due to health issues or concerns or vaccination hesitancy. Many drivers fall into the high-risk category."
Enhanced federal unemployment benefits and the child tax credit are compounding the problem, she said. Candidates are still applying to be drivers, but some of those potential candidates are applying as a means to provide supporting documentation for unemployment benefits.
"When unemployment runs out in September, we hope to see some of them coming back, but we need to put the schedules in place now," Mortier said.
The School Bus Contractors Association, which works with 300 New York school districts, is helping its members to find drivers by supporting their recruitment efforts and helping in communication with state agencies to get new drivers licensed and certified to take the wheel. It can take up to 12 weeks for a new candidate to be able to drive a bus.
Schools are actively recruiting drivers through increased advertising, open houses and hiring events, and by raising wages and sign-on bonuses.
The Bethlehem school district is going into the new school year with 20 fewer drivers than it had pre-COVID and has launched a series of aggressive in-person and online recruitment campaigns.
"We hope people know that while you need to have a clean driver's license, you don't need experience or a CDL ... that training comes from professional trainers we have on staff," Bethlehem spokeswoman Jo Ellen Gardner said in a statement. "As our Director of Transportation Karim Johnson likes to say, 'Our most successful driver candidates have never driven anything larger than a Toyota Camry.'"
Driver salaries at Bethlehem are starting at $19.47/hour for substitute drivers; $19.67/hour for regular drivers plus benefits.
To make it work, school districts are working with the drivers they currently have on flexible pickup and drop-off times and adjusted sporting schedules. Delaying sports will allow drivers time to return from their usual routes to pick up students from practice.
Districts have many new roles to fill to address educational gaps and social-emotional needs exacerbated by the health crisis, but the shortages seem largely relegated to non-instructional positions, which would not prevent schools from reopening at full capacity this fall.
In South Colonie schools, the demand for hall monitors, food service help, clerical work, and custodial workers does not seem to match the supply, spokeswoman Kara Granato said.
"All these positions play a critical role in the experience our children have on our buses and in our schools. They are essential to our organization and we need them to function efficiently," she said.
East Greenbush and Mohonasen public schools are short on teaching assistants, school officials said. The Ballston Spa district is seeking cafeteria workers.
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