Parents waiting for late school buses in Bristol Thursday morning said the disruption due to a shortage of drivers is costing them money, lost sleep and daily frustration.
Parents said they are dealing with the situation as best they can, but some said they have been late for work and appointments and they do not get enough advance notice about when buses will arrive.
The nationwide shortage of drivers hit districts throughout Connecticut, some harder than others. School administrators and bus contractors are scrambling to fill open slots, offering hiring bonuses up to $4,000.
Bristol School Superintendent Catherine Carbone told parents in a letter Wednesday that the district’s bus company, First Student, announced that day that in addition to the ongoing shortage, some drivers had called out of work.
“First Student is working to resolve this issue; however, I do anticipate that we will continue to experience morning and afternoon delays for some of our students for the remainder of the week,” Carbone wrote. “I, too, share in your frustrations and we are working to temporarily resolve this issue as an administration as well. Thank you for your continued patience, flexibility, and support.”
Kiki Fitzgerald, waiting with her second-grader Thursday, said she works the night shift as a certified nursing assistant, so waiting for late buses is causing her lost sleep.
Other parents said the disrupted schedule has affected preschool drop-offs and care of younger children. They say they are losing time and pay at work by having to punch in late.
“It’s just too much. I thought they would have everything together by now,” said Celleste, who did not want to give her last name. Strapping her toddler into a car seat after a bus picked up her older child, she said she just started a new job and has had to explain her tardiness daily.
Parents said they get little advance notice of late buses. One parent shared an email from Chippens Hill Middle School Principal Mariliz Fitzpatrick, dated Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. School starts at 7:50 a.m.
“Buses are running late this morning due to a shortage in bus drivers,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “If you could bring your child to school, please do so.”
In East Hartford, district chief operating officer Ben Whittaker said all regular bus routes are covered, but DATTCO lacks a pool of substitute drivers, “so when they have absences, routes have to be combined at the last minute.” The company also is uncertain about the ability to provide as-needed transportation to athletic events, Whittaker said.
Out-of-district transportation has been more of a challenge, he said, “with our regular provider not able to cover the demand and we have needed to bring in alternate providers.”
Gov. Ned Lamont said Connecticut is doing all it can to address the driver shortage, which has been blamed alternately on the pandemic and extended unemployment benefits.
“There’s some COVID hesitancy (among drivers), and we have to convince people it’s safe to do it. Kids are wearing masks,” said Lamont, who has mandated masks for teachers, staff, students and bus drivers inside all schools and buses.
Lamont has ordered that all school staff and contractors be vaccinated by Sept. 27 or submit to weekly testing. Carolyn Pattrell, a school bus driver in Bristol for 17 years, said the driver shortage in the district is due in part to many drivers not returning after the last school year because they were concerned about the ongoing pandemic.
Pattrell said she is not vaccinated because she does not trust the COVID-19 vaccine, but she will submit to a saliva test. However, she said, other local school bus drivers have said they will neither be vaccinated nor tested, so the driver shortage is bound to get worse.
First Student spokesperson Jay Brock said the student transportation industry was already facing a driver shortage before COVID-19, “and the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation.”
“While our goal is to ensure transportation service resumes as seamlessly as possible,” Brock said, “a need for drivers could affect some bus routes. Unfortunately, a number of our drivers decided not to return to work this school year for various reasons. We are working with school districts to minimize the impact to families.”
In Bristol, Brock said, the company is offering sign-on bonuses of $4,000 for CDL drivers and $1,500 for drivers without the credential.
Bus companies laid off hundreds of drivers when schools shut down in the early months of the pandemic last year, and getting them back has been difficult. New Britain-based DATTCO, one of the largest contractors in the state, recently advertised 111 part- and full-time school bus driving jobs.
Even though it takes many weeks for untrained applicants to learn the job and obtain the license, DATTCO was seeking them, too.
“We are urgently hiring school bus drivers in Middletown,” the company announced on Facebook last week. “No experience necessary — paid training for your CDL!”
The company was offering $18 an hour to trainee drivers in New Haven, and $21 in New Canaan.
Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at email@example.com