Groton seeking solutions to school bus driver shortage

Oct. 31—GROTON — The Groton school district has reached out to its bus company and the state to try to find solutions to a shortage of bus drivers.

After starting the school year with a shortage of five bus drivers, the district is seeing progress and is expected to soon return to a level staffing, Superintendent Susan Austin said last week. But Groton still is seeing a few drivers calling out each day and, amid a nationwide staffing shortage, there are no extra substitutes to fill those spots.

"Due to the bus driver shortage, we have not been able to fully implement our after-school enrichment activities and would like to be able to do that in November," Austin said.

In an update to the Board of Education last week, Austin said the district's contracted bus company, Student Transportation of America, had notified the district in August of a driver shortage and that it had five fewer drivers for the district than the year before. The bus company also experienced drivers calling out, leaving Groton up to 11 drivers short on any given day, according to Austin's report. That represents a shortage of about a quarter of the district's fleet.

As part of the Groton 2020 plan, the district this year opened two new elementary schools and shifted to all intradistrict magnet elementary schools. The new Groton Middle School opened last year next to Fitch High School. The district recently implemented a two-tiered model that combined the middle and high schools' runs, after consulting with Transfinder, a company that has software to help school districts determine bus routes.

The original plan was to have buses at 66% maximum capacity, which is two students per seat for upper grades and two or three to a seat for young students, with routes no longer than an hour and most lasting 30 to 40 minutes. That would have worked well, but Groton hasn't been able to follow routes as designed because the bus company hasn't had enough drivers to fulfill the contract, Austin said. When a driver is absent, others have to pick up the routes. She said the district has been communicating with families about delays.

She said the district, one of the largest in the area, has used a variety of approaches. Those included hiring an additional bus company, First Student, until that company couldn't help any longer, and reaching out to the town to ask for support from Parks and Recreation vans, according to her report.

Austin also reached out to the state's school bus driver shortage task force, which added Groton to the list of districts in need of drivers.

Earlier in October, the district also sent a letter to the bus company to put it "on notice" that it needs to fulfill its contract, she said.

She said two more drivers reported to work last week, with three more expected this week. She said that would bring the district to level staffing but it still needs substitutes for when drivers call out.

Pandemic exacerbated shortage

Student Transportation of America, like many other student transportation providers, is experiencing a shortage of bus drivers, primarily due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"The driver shortage has been an ongoing issue for providers across the country, even pre-pandemic, and the public health crisis ultimately exacerbated the problem," STA said in a statement. "This includes many unanticipated retirements, mostly due to health concerns from those with pre-existing conditions and those who are at a higher risk for COVID-19, as well as a limited applicant pool of new recruits. At our Groton location, through an extensive recruiting and training campaign, we are currently able to cover all 65 of our routes."

"While hiring continues to be a challenge, STA has made significant investments in recruitment initiatives and is optimistic that we will continue to grow our team," it said.

STA said it is running recruitment campaigns, which have helped bring in several new candidates who are being trained; three have just passed the testing process and will join the bus company. STA also will continue to interview new drivers.

State Department of Education spokesman Eric Scoville, who is leading the state's school bus driver shortage task force — it includes agencies such as the education department, Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of Children and Families, and emergency management — said the task force is working on a variety of approaches.

That includes expediting new hires through the certification and training pipeline and identifying Veyo, the state's Medicaid transportation vendor, as a way to offer assistance to school districts with shortages. The task force sent an appeal letter to 9,000 people with commercial driver's licenses — an estimated 2,000 are not currently working — and received about 900 responses, which it shared with the industry to see if they could be hired full- or part-time.

The task force, which was put together at the direction of the governor's office and Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker, set up a formal request process for districts to ask for help from the state. The task force received eight requests, including from Groton.

Jean Cronin, lobbyist for the Connecticut School Transportation Association, said the driver shortage was a nationwide issue even before the COVID-19 pandemic, due to a variety of reasons, including a lengthy testing and training process, and unusual hours — bus drivers have to work in the early mornings, take a break and then work in the afternoon, and have summers off — that are good for some people but others might find challenging.

The pandemic then led to a "perfect storm," Cronin said, as many people were worried about getting sick and a lot of drivers decided to retire. Then, she said, dozens of drivers were lost statewide due to new requirements, including a mandate for drivers to get vaccinated or weekly testing, and a vaccination requirement for new hires.

Companies are working hard to recruit drivers by increasing pay and benefits.

"I think every employer in the state is facing similar issues to try to get workers," Cronin added.

With the shortage, many administrative personnel, mechanics and managers with commercial driver's licenses have pitched in, while bus drivers have had to take other measures, such as doubling up routes, she said.

Other districts respond to shortage

Peter Anderson, director of operations and facilities for Stonington schools, said that town's bus provider, First Student, has done a good job filling in where needed even with the driver shortage. He said two routes had to be combined but things are working now. He said the district did have an issue last week with elementary school conferences, resulting in route delays, but that ended on Thursday.

Many parents in Stonington drive their children to school instead of having them bused.

Preston schools say their drivers slots are full but the service used for substitute drivers, STA, has had difficulty providing substitutes. The district has maintained special education service using vans and rerouting.

Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said Norwich schools currently do not have any routes affected by a driver shortage.

Waterford has fared well, except for some minor disruption to some athletic events this past fall, Superintendent Thomas W. Giard III said.

"For the most part, our daily transportation to and from school has been good due to the hard work and dedication of our transportation company (STA)," he said.

Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser said the district has enough drivers to staff its 12 bus runs on a daily basis. The only problem the district runs into is that it does not have substitute drivers, so if a driver calls out, some bus runs must be combined.

Jason S. Hartling, superintendent of Ledyard schools, which also use STA, said the district has been consistently short several drivers but the team has worked hard to adjust and minimize the impact to students. That includes adjusting routes and having managers get on the road when needed.

"Things are challenging but it's a team effort and they have been able to keep the buses rolling for our children," he said. "I can't say enough how awesome our bus team has done in face of a lot of challenges."

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Elizabeth Regan and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.