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Pennsylvania recruiting school bus drivers amid shortage

  • Michael Rubinkam/Associated Press
School buses are parked at a depot Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa.

 Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

School buses are parked at a depot Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa.

(Harrisburg) — Pennsylvania is contacting 375,000 holders of commercial driver’s licenses in a recruitment campaign meant to ease a severe shortage of school bus drivers, officials said Thursday.

The state has a little more than 42,000 school bus drivers, the smallest complement in five years and about 2,000 fewer than in 2017, which has left some districts scrambling to get students to and from school. Officials are hoping to address the shortage by appealing to drivers looking for work or seeking to supplement their income.

“We want to do everything we possibly can to expand the number of individuals with school bus endorsements to be able to get our children to school. That’s the critical part of all of this,” said Kurt Myers, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for driver and vehicle services.

He said the Department of Transportation will mail all current CDL holders about the need for bus drivers and inform them how they can get the right endorsement to operate a school bus. PennDOT will also temporarily offer another day of CDL skills testing per week. The additional testing days will be held on Mondays for four consecutive weeks beginning Oct. 18.

Schools across the nation are facing driver shortages, with nearly 80% of districts in one survey saying they were having trouble finding enough drivers.

In Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh delayed the start of school because of the shortage and began the year with hundreds of students still without a seat. The district said those families would be eligible for reimbursement of transportation costs. The School District of Philadelphia is also paying parents to drive their children to and from school.

In rural northwestern Pennsylvania, the Penncrest School District announced rotating two-hour school delays. Superintendent Timothy Glasspool told families the driver shortage “has reached a critical point, and is affecting our ability to operate at full capacity.”

The Pennsylvania School Bus Association, a trade group representing transportation contractors, surveyed its members over the summer and estimates at least 1,000 drivers are needed statewide. Executive Director Ryan Dellinger said it is a longstanding issue that’s been made worse by the pandemic, with some drivers reluctant to come back because of COVID-19 concerns.

“It’s nothing new, it’s just now we’re at a crisis point,” Dellinger said Thursday. “Now we’re at the point where kids can’t get to school.”

He applauded the state’s outreach to CDL holders and said he’s hopeful it will result in new bus drivers.

The Pennsylvania education secretary, Noe Ortega, said Thursday that the driver shortage is “frustrating to our students, and our parents.” He said it “isn’t something we can fix overnight” but was optimistic that progress would be made.

Ortega and Myers spoke at an online news conference about the state’s efforts to keep schools open for in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another Wolf administration official, Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam, pledged her department would be “more responsive” to school districts that say they’ve had trouble getting clear answers from state health officials about quarantine, masking and other issues that are cropping up as students return to class.

At a state Senate Education Committee hearing last week, the superintendent of the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County said that it was nearly impossible to talk to a live Health Department official. Instead, Michael Bromirski told senators, the Health Department tended to communicate via email, often leaving school officials to guess at how state officials want schools to handle in-person instruction during the pandemic.

Beam said Thursday that a Health Department team previously set up to deal with schools would make a priority of communicating one-on-one with local education officials who have questions.

“That is now going to be able to be elevated and really prioritized,” she said.

Some schools have been unable to remain open consistently this academic year, shutting down for a few days at a time and switching to remote learning because of COVID-19 spread. Numerous football games and other athletic contests have been canceled or postponed because of the pandemic.

State officials do not track school closures and student quarantines, but state data indicates that coronavirus infections in school-age children are far more numerous this year than at this time in 2020.

For the week ending Sept. 21, there were nearly 8,000 cases in children aged 5 to 18 — more than 12 times the number of infections for the same week a year ago, according to the Health Department.

Beam said Thursday that a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for eligible children or for teachers is not under discussion, though the Wolf administration is strongly encouraging those groups to get the shot. A little more than 1 in 5 Pennsylvania children aged 12 to 14 are vaccinated, and more than 2 in 5 residents aged 15 to 19.

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