Rockland/Westchester Journal News
Written By: Gary Stern
A worsening shortage of school bus drivers across the state and the country is hitting home in the Hudson Valley, including in Yonkers, where close to 500 new students may not be able to get a bus when the city's schools open next Thursday.
New York's fourth largest school system transports about 11,300 students on 464 buses and vans. But private busing companies contracted by the district no longer have enough drivers to keep up with Yonkers' growing student enrollment.
So parents and guardians may have to find other ways to get their kids to school.
"We're working hard to resolve this, but we're at the mercy of the companies we contract with and they don't have enough drivers," Yonkers Superintendent Edwin Quezada said Thursday. "It's a nationwide problem."
The district and its bus companies got a slight reprieve when the opening of school was delayed Thursday until Sept. 9 because of flooding.
Across New York, many districts now have 15-20% fewer drivers than they need, said David Christopher, executive director of the New York State Association of Pupil Transportation.
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"Almost every school I talk to has routes open for the start of school," he said. "It could be one or two, or 10 or 15, depending on the size of the school district. And everyone needs substitutes because people call in sick."
COVID worsens shortage
A shortage of drivers had been developing for years when the COVID pandemic quickly exacerbated the problem for schools. Drivers are traditionally older, often retired, and many left their jobs to lower the risk of getting sick.
"Our demographic is high risk — older and often with health concerns," said Tammy Mortier, executive director of the New York School Bus Contractors Association. "A lot of drivers didn't want to be around children and put themselves at risk."
About one third of New York's nearly 700 school districts have their own fleets of buses and hire their own drivers, while two thirds of districts contract with private busing companies.
Enhanced unemployment benefits have also enticed many drivers to stay home, Christopher and Mortier agreed. They believe the expiration of enhanced benefits on Sept. 6 could draw more people to driving jobs.
But another challenge is that it can take up to 12 weeks in New York for a prospective driver to get the required training and certification to drive a school bus.
Most drivers in New York are part-time and wages vary. Upstate drivers make $13-15 an hour, while downstate drivers can make twice as much, Christopher said.
The Wappingers school district consolidated bus routes for the new school year, eliminating the need for 15 drivers, because of the ongoing driver shortage. The district has its own fleet of buses, but began contracting last year with a private bus company to take over 35 routes because the district was short of drivers.
"It's one of the most important things we do: make sure our students have a safe ride to and from school," Wappingers Superintendent Dwight Bonk said.
Wappingers should be able to bus all eligible students for the start of the school year, But the district is still displaying "Now Hiring" banners on buses at three schools that advertise the need for drivers and monitors.
Chestnut Ridge Transportation, a Spring Valley-based company that provides busing to the East Ramapo, Suffern and Pearl River districts, still doesn't have quite enough drivers for the start of the school year, Vice President Tim Flood said.
"We're short a few routes, but fortunately two districts haven't started yet so we have a little time to get people in the seats," he said.
Flood said the company has about 350 drivers but would prefer to have over 400. So dispatchers and other office workers may have to drive when schools open.
"There isn't a quick solution, so we're working with school districts to make routes as efficient as possible," Flood said. "We need flexibility."
Even many school district and bus companies that have just enough drivers to start the school year say they don't have substitutes, which can present day-to-day problems as the year progresses.
Quality Bus Service, a New Hampton-based company that serves the Chester and Sparrowbush area in Orange County, lost about 40% of its drivers and is now barely 100% staffed after raising its hourly rate by $2. But the company would prefer to be at 105-110% of staffing so back-up drivers would be available.
First Student, a national bus company that serves at least 75 districts in New York, including Yonkers, has tried several strategies over the last year to hire more drivers, including doing more recruiting, holding open houses, and offering higher wages and signing bonuses, said spokesman Brian Fitzgerald.
"We've been working on everything, but the boat doesn't turn that quickly because of the qualifications and certifications required," he said.
Fitzgerald said First Student has about 4,000 drivers in New York but could use 400-600 more.
School districts might want to contract with additional bus companies as the school year nears, but state law prohibits them from doing so for more than a month without a bidding process. Quezada said he talking to the state Education Department about whether it could be possible to temporarily change the rules.
In the long term, officials said, school districts may have to work with the state Education Department and bus companies to raise the status of the bus driving profession.
"Bus driving has been seen like a retirement job or second job, but with the certification requirements that are in place, it's more of a profession," Christopher said. "We have to do more to attract people to the profession, and that means more pay and better benefits. But you also have to raise the profile; driving is a community service."
Staff Writer Helu Wang contributed to this report.
Gary Stern is an editor/writer covering K-12 education in the Hudson Valley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @garysternNY.
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