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All City School Students Can Return In-Person Monday, Though Some Won’t Have District Transportation

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
A student approaches an arriving school bus in this 2018 photo.

As of Monday, all Pittsburgh Public Schools students will have an opportunity to attend in-person classes after schools shuttered 13 months ago. Though, with the district currently experiencing a bus driver shortage, some of them might not have a way to get there.

It’s unclear where and when the breakdown happened. Administrators have said the shortage has been an issue for years. The district surveyed families as recently as last month about their transportation needs ahead of schools reopening. Then March 23 the district said that all students could return May 3.

District administrators now say between 500 and 600 students per day do not have a secured seat in a district-provided vehicle. That is down from 1,300 students a day according to Mike McNamara, PPS's interim chief operations officer. He told the school board Wednesday that families had responded to the district’s request to either provide transportation for their students or keep them in remote learning for the time being.

“Everybody seemed to step up and was able to get us the information so we could organize and maximize the efficiency of getting kids to school,” McNamara said.

He did not say how many more drivers the district needs. As of last month, the district said it needed 200 more drivers to fill the seat gap.

McNamara presented a last-minute stopgap solution Wednesday , which the board unanimously approved. During the board meeting he said he had introduced the measure during executive session before the public meeting began.

The district will pay Pittsburgh Transportation Group Charter Inc. up to $37,500 to transport students to and from bus stops and schools. According to the contract, three 30-passenger buses will service routes for six schools. The buses will not be available until May 10, so McNamara said families who have been notified that they won’t have transportation will have to provide it on their own, remain in remote learning or use district-provided Port Authority vouchers to ride PAT buses to school.

Megan Patton, the district’s director of transportation, said she would have more information Friday about how many students would be on the buses, how many routes they would run and how many students still need a seat.

When asked why the district told families that all students could return May 3 when they knew that there was a driver shortage, Patton deferred to the district's chief of staff, Errika Fearby Jones.

The district had not responded to a request for comment as of Thursday evening.

Patton said the district had most recently surveyed families about their transportation needs last month. She said she is in constant communication with the 20 transportation companies that the district contracts with. Two of the companies responded to a request for comment; the remaining either didn’t respond or declined an interview.

The bus driver shortage has been an issue for several years, she said, but was exacerbated by the pandemic.

It’s a part time job often without benefits. The hours are early and it takes time and money to be a licensed driver.

Mary Neady the manager of the WL Roenigk garage in McKees Rocks said she lost 23 drivers out of her garage. Neady said she employed on average 70 to 100 drivers before the pandemic, many of whom serviced PPS. She said the vast majority left because they weren’t getting paid when districts were remote.

“Then you had older people who were afraid of getting sick and were already retirement age and said we can’t risk coming back," she said. "But the younger ones the vast majority needed work to pay bills.”

Patton said PPS can’t afford to operate its own buses and employ its own drivers. The contractors have to pay to maintain the vehicles, training and certification.

“Everything has to be up to date and, on top of that, we had to make sure [the buses were] sanitized,” Neady said. “So everything has to be done behind the scenes, and we have to have dispatchers and trainers ready to go whether we had a bus on the road or not.”

Even if schools had been open, though, Neady said finding applicants is a challenge. When she started in the 1980s, she said they would get three or four applications a week. She said that number has dwindled to that many every few months.

Mary Taylor-Sesay, transportation director at the Sierra Transportation garage in McKees Rocks, used to employ 17 drivers; she is now down to four. She said she’s losing thousands of dollars to maintain the auto insurance costs.

Taylor-Sesay said she is hopeful that work will pick up, but she hasn’t brought back drivers because business remains shaky.

“We’ve been waiting for over a year," she said. "You know restaurants are coming back and we hope things will work for us but we’re up to the end of the school year so that will probably be another wait for us until August."