Schools in Cortland County learning to balance in the thick of nationwide shortage of bus drivers

(Photo Source: Unsplash).

A national shortage of school bus drivers, which school superintendents in Cortland County attribute to larger labor trends experienced in a variety of major industries, has caused some complications for students attending schools in the county and participating in some extracurricular activities.

According to a survey from the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) and the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), the reduced pool of applicants is not a new problem. The survey garnered 1,500 responses.

The study notes at least half of participating school districts described their driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate.” The study states at least 78 percent of respondents described their situation with a lack of drivers as getting “much worse,” or “a little worse.”  

“As school districts across the country return to in-person learning and COVID continues to have an impact on education in general and school transportation scheduling and logistics in particular, the shortage of school bus drivers has become conspicuous,” NAPT executive director Mike Martin said in a release issued at the beginning of the school year. “But let’s be clear – this is not a new problem; nor is it easy to solve.”

Cortland Enlarged City School District (CESD) superintendent Robert Edwards addressed the diminished pool of applicants, but commended the district’s staff for their “resiliency” and ability to adapt to a new reality.

“I think all school districts in New York are facing similar circumstances. Some have it way worse than others,” Edwards said. “We have a wonderful and dedicated staff, but that said, we are having some struggles with some of our sports runs. We are having scheduling conflicts with some of the activities that are outside the normal transportation of taking kids to and from school.”

There are currently 19 bus drivers as part of the transportation staff at CECSD, Edwards said. 

“We’d be really solid with four more drivers to help round our staff out,” he added. “Right now our crew are rockstars, just doing some great work.”

In Homer, the district is also actively recruiting. 

“We are fortunate in Homer to have a dedicated team of bus drivers,” Homer Central School District superintendent Thomas Turck said. “With that said, though, we have had a number of folks out due to various illnesses this year and are always looking for highly qualified individuals to drive our busses. We have 41 bus drivers on staff and operate 105 bus runs per day.”

Cincinnatus Central School District (CCSD) superintendent Todd Freeman said the school employs 10 full-time bus drivers, with five substitutes, all of whom are tasked to cover the 13 regular bus runs in addition to the two-to-five sports trips per week during sports seasons.

“This shortens our list of drivers,” Freeman said.

Freeman said the cost of commercial drivers’ licenses (CDL) and a lack of hours are contributing to the lack of drivers.

“There are not enough hours — here our drivers generally work 3-4 hours,” Freeman said. “The drivers have to drive themselves to and from work four times daily, versus an eight-hour employee that drives twice daily. With the extra cost of gas and the shorter hours, the hourly rate drops and is not always worth it to a new employee who is low on the totem pole and does not get many hours.”

Freeman said the cost of a CDL has increased up to more than $100. Another concern for Freeman is further regulations surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine for drivers.

The state has moved to facilitate the hiring of bus drivers, sharing the information of interested applicants with school districts across New York, and waving certain time elements in the process of obtaining a CDL. 

“Our schools and public health officials have moved mountains to ensure our children receive an in-person education this year, and we are leaving no stone unturned to make sure schools have adequate bus service to bring students to school and back,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement. “While the shortage of school bus drivers is not unique to New York state, I have directed state agencies to utilize creative approaches and use every tool at their disposal to help districts affected by the bus driver shortage, so we can bring in as many qualified bus drivers as as quickly as possible.” 

COVID-19 restrictions have played a part in CECSD’s struggles with transportation. Currently, the district’s policies for riding the bus include:

  • Are expected to have been screened at home.
  • Must wear a mask at all times.
  • Must sit in socially distanced/assigned seats (reduced capacity on buses).
  • Failure to comply with these expectations will be considered a choice of remote learning.

“Last year (with COVID-19 measures) was brutal, but we did not have as many kids on our buses,” Edwards said. “This year has just further complicated things. When we return to a different, more normal scenario, we will be in much better shape.” 

McGraw Central School District and Marathon Central School District may be the outlier in the region.

“All of our driving positions are currently filled,” McGraw Central School District superintendent Melinda McCool said. “We actually have a few substitutes on our list as well. We have seven full-time drivers and the transportation director on staff.”

McCool noted her district is fortunate to have a “phenomenal” staff. 

“I don’t think anyone is impervious to the shortage of drivers,” McCool said. “We are very fortunate, we have a phenomenal staff, but the shortage can hit anyone at any time. “I feel very grateful to the drivers that we do have.”

Marathon Central School District Superintendent Rebecca Stone ​​did not disclose the number of bus drivers on staff, but noted the district is doing well when it comes to transportation.

“We have been fortunate enough to keep the dedicated drivers we have,” Stone said, noting there have been no issues trying to recruit bus drivers. “We have 15 runs, and at this time, we have enough contract drivers to cover runs as well as subs when needed.”