School bus driver shortage amplified by pandemic

·4 min read

Jul. 29—Transportation companies struggled to hire enough school bus drivers before the COVID-19 pandemic led some to switch careers, retire, or stay home with children learning remotely. Now some are calling the shortage a crisis.

The New Hampshire School Transportation Association and the state's education commissioner brought attention to the need to hire hundreds of drivers Wednesday morning. At a news conference in Bow, a large banner read "Become a School Bus Driver!"

"New Hampshire has never seen such a severe shortage of bus drivers, and now it has hit a crisis level, which will make it more difficult to get children to and from school this upcoming school year," said Karen Holden, vice president of the association.

Some districts are down as many as 50% of their drivers, she said.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said school districts did a great job adjusting to remote schooling and then transitioning back to in-person.

"Our bus drivers are in some ways unsung heroes in that work because they were able to step up and make sure that happened for our families," he said.

In-person learning is expected to continue in the fall.

"We want to see all of our students back to in-person instruction, and part of making that happen is we have enough drivers," Edelblut said.

The state's low unemployment rate adds another obstacle in hiring efforts, he said.

Holden said school districts are mandated to provide transportation for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The shortage has hit every area of the state, including small districts in the North Country, according to Sandra Rowe, a member of the association's board of directors.

The job is perfect for a retiree or a stay-at-home parent, she said. "School bus driving is such an amazing job because you work a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon," she said.

Jeff Finfrock, area general manager for Student Transportation of America, said the shortage is a problem nationwide. The company operates more than 16,000 vehicles in 24 states. In New Hampshire, the company serves about 30 school districts along with private schools.

"It has always been a difficult sell in terms of getting school bus drivers," he said.

The job also requires background checks, drug testing, fingerprinting and driving records, which eliminates some candidates, Finfrock said.

The company recruits new drivers year-round through hosting job fairs and visiting unemployment offices. The company has parked buses and hung "now hiring" banners and paid for advertising in movie theaters. Job listings are placed on school district websites and social media, and at golf courses and laundromats.

"We are always looking for what a new niche would be, but we do everything we can possibly think of in order to recruit and to get drivers to come in," he said.

The drivers are paid while going through training. Hourly wages range from $18 to the low $20s. Most bus drivers work 20 to 25 hours a week.

The company provides parents of small children with car seats so the little ones can ride along on the routes.

"There are the internal rewards of doing something for kids," Finfrock said.

Holden, who works as assistant director for school operations at the Manchester Transit Authority, said the MTA offers many of the same benefits. Fully licensed drivers can get a hiring bonus of $1,500, and drivers get a yearly retention bonus of $2,000.

The MTA driver ranks are also down, with officials having hired 40 out of the 60 needed. The authority pays while a driver is being trained. Wages jump from $15.73 to $18.36 once a driver obtains a commercial license. The wage goes up to $20.40 after a year of service.

Drivers also get stipends for shoes and winter jackets and are allowed to use other MTA bus services for free.

Dean Cascadden, superintendent in Bow and Dunbarton, said school bus drivers help the school district meet its goals and are considered part of the school community.

"Bus driving is not just a job," he said. "It is about coming into the school community. It is working with the students."

Holden said positions are open for drivers of different-sized vehicles, including small vans, mini-buses and larger school buses.

She hopes some drivers who stepped away will return as COVID-19 vaccination rates increase.

"Your community needs you," Holden said.

Interested drivers are encouraged to check with local school districts for open positions.

jphelps@unionleader.com

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