On the first day of school in Hamden, 300 students were left without a school bus route, and were told instead to take public transit or have a parent drive them to school.
“We were just informed by the bus company that they do not have coverage for 7 bus routes affecting Hamden Public Schools, St. Rita’s and Sacred Heart Academy. There is a nationwide bus shortage which has impacted many school districts across the country,” read a notice posted by Hamden Middle School’s Parent Teacher Association on Saturday afternoon.
According to First Student, the bus company that works with Hamden, “a number of our drivers decided not to return to work this school year for various reasons. We are working in partnership with the district to minimize the impact to families. Longer routes and wait times at bus stops are possible.”
For many families the last minute change, and the potential for longer bus rides, has made the return to classrooms even more stressful.
“This leaves so many parents and kids in a serious bind as the solutions presented are to use public transportation or carpool. Families are being asked to pivot to cover this shortcoming 48 hours before schools start. Many of them have already made elaborate plans for before and after care for kids and now may have to change all of that,” said Eliza Lou, a Hamden resident. “Equity is an issue here. Some parents or caregivers can’t take any more time off of work or don’t drive. There will be groups of kids that miss the first day of school and potentially miss meals if they receive them through school.”
While Hamden Public Schools and First Student, seem to have been hit the hardest, every school bus company across the state is struggling with understaffing after 18 months of reduced work, fears of the delta variant and expanded unemployment benefits still available.
“I was at each school this morning, and all buses were running, most with drivers I recognized, but I also noticed that M&J, our carrier, has a help wanted sign posted at the depot,” said Jan Perruccio, superintendent of Old Saybrook Public Schools. “Everyone seems to be struggling to fill positions, from restaurants to schools and bus companies.”
In June, bus companies across the state were reporting a 20-30 percent shortage of staff, according to Dattco. Despite the early warning and the fact that First Student, M&J and other companies have been offering sign-on bonuses of up to $5,000 the need has yet to be met, Lou said.
One likely reason for the continuing shortfall is that bus driver training takes between 4 and 5 months for drivers without a commercial license.
“The drivers that are working are stretched as far as they possibly can be, multiple routes and extra pickups,” Lou said. “Even if they hire someone today, it’s 4 to 5 months for training and certification. It could be a rough year for bus students.”