MIDDLETOWN — The DATTCO bus company is attempted to resolve ongoing driver shortages that have led to a number of school bus route changes and cancellations during the semester, according to a statement released by the school district on Tuesday.
The driver shortage resulted in multiple busing cancellations and delays last week and this week, including the cancellation of bus routes at Snow School, Middletown High School and Beman Middle School on Monday. The 21st Century After School program at Beman was also canceled because of “busing issues” according to messages from the district.
The statement said that DATTCO has agreed to move drivers from other towns with a surplus of drivers to ensure that routes in Middletown are no longer canceled. The district also plans to offer a commercial drivers license preparation course at Middletown Adult Education.
“Guaranteeing that our students and families are not faced with unnecessary challenges of getting to and from school, Middletown Public Schools will continue to assess DATTCO’s performance,” the statement read. “We will work collaboratively with them on these efforts so that our collective goal of serving the students and families of Middletown is fulfilled.”
Bill Perkins, whose two daughters attend Beman Elementary School, said they’ve been affected by the shortages three times this year. He said it’s not a huge problem when he knows in advance that the bus is going to be late, but once, he said, he didn’t find out until he’d already left for work. His wife, he said, leaves for her job even earlier than he does.
“If the bus doesn’t come, it’s a huge problem for us,” said Perkins, who has also run for the Middletown Board of Education in the past.
Perkins works as a truck driver, and he said he had to stop in the middle of his route, turn around, pick up his daughters and drop them off at school, then return to work. He said his delays also affect his fellow workers.
Jennifer Hart, a single mother whose children go to Mercy High School and John Paul II Elementary, said that her oldest daughter was affected when the bus that her daughter shares with students from Beman Middle School had a route cancellation one morning last month.
“At Mercy, it’s strict,” said Hart. “You can’t be late. If you’re late, you don’t get to play sports … she was in a panic.”
Hart said she called Dattco and was told the bus wasn’t running that day. She left work, she said, and sped home to get her daughter and drive her to school.
“To take her to go to school, it took me about an hour, but what if I was an hour away or I had to go to Boston for the day? She would’ve missed school,” said Hart, who said she felt the district should make a better backup plan for situations like this one.
Bryony Chamberlain, vice president for school buses with DATTCO, told CT Examiner that the company was trying to recruit more drivers in the middle of what is a national bus driver shortage. But she said that while other areas where the company works have had shortages, those areas haven’t had to cancel routes.
“In general, we’ve been okay. We just really hit a crunch point over the last couple of days and we’ve managed, bring more drivers in to resolve the issue in the short term,” she said.
Chamberlain said that this week, a number of drivers had quit to find jobs in other industries. That combined with drivers who were out sick and others who were away led to the driver shortages in Middletown that resulted in multiple buses being canceled.
Chamberlain said the company was working on recruitment and retention of bus drivers. She also said she wanted to get a change in legislation around how bus drivers are certified. According to Connecticut law, she said, bus drivers have to take a test to get recertified every four years. She said that Connecticut is unique in this requirement.
“We have lost experienced school bus drivers because it’s such an extensive test. You have to be able to sit in the seat and drive the vehicle and talk through every single action that you take. We have had drivers say that they’re just not going to do it again, and they’ve downgraded their license as a result of that test. It’s very onerous on the employees and it certainly increases the turnover,” said Chamberlain.
The district’s statement noted that while the school district was responsible for providing transportation to and from school, the bus company needed to make sure they were able to meet their obligations.
“When students are faced with challenges that prevent them from attending school daily, their academic learning and growth are interrupted. For this reason, it is our obligation to guarantee transportation to and from school for all students in Middletown Public Schools,” the statement read. “It is the responsibility of school transportation providers to strategically plan and prepare for the most challenging of times, such as now, so that they are able to fulfill their commitment to students, families, and school districts.”