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Despite Bus Driver Shortage, Other Pennsylvania School Districts Prepare To Start Year On Time

school Bus Driver Shortages
Iris Samuels
School buses parked ahead of the beginning of the school year, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021.

Pittsburgh Public Schools received broad criticism from many parents and advocates when it announced the start of the school year would be pushed back to Sept. 3 in attempts to give the district more time to address a nationwide bus driver shortage.

But while PPS officials said they began working in earnest to address the driver shortage four months ago, officials from similar-sized school districts said they’ve worked for more than a year on their transportation plans.

Officials from public school districts such as Philadelphia, Central Bucks and Minneapolis, Minn. said their districts have not changed school start dates or the hours of the school day due to transportation issues. All three districts use a combination of district-owned buses and buses from private companies to get students to school.

Over the last year, the districts have implemented multiple different programs to increase their transportation capacity, many of which PPS also worked to put in place this summer.

Some of the most popular measures include offering sign on and referral bonuses for bus drivers, asking drivers to do multiple pick-up and drop-off routes, and paying stipends to families who opt-out of district transportation and take their own kids to school.

“We are essentially providing a payment to households for them to transport their own children to school, which gives us additional seats on our busses,” said Danielle Floyd, the general manager of transportation services for the School District of Philadelphia.

Floyd said more than 3,800 families have opted into the program so far.

In August, PPS officials asked the school board to approve similar measures in the district, including a tiered bus schedule. PPS also plans to put more students on Port Authority buses and increase the number of students who walk to school.

Families will have the option to give up their seat on district-provided transportation if they can take their own children to school. The district will offer reimbursements to families with children who are part of the “seat gap” of students it is currently unable to transport.

Officials outside of Pittsburgh say they’ve faced transportation issues for years, but bus driver shortages have recently become more severe.

“In the past we’ve been short of drivers, and we’ve been able to go to the private sector and make up the difference, but last year and this year since the pandemic, our private bus contractors are suffering the same shortages we are,” said Lisa Beck, the executive director of transportation for Minneapolis Public Schools, which serves about 34,000 students.

“Certainly, with COVID and the pandemic in the last year it certainly has heightened the problem and we’re certainly experiencing shortages that are unprecedented for our school system,” Beck said.

The PPS school board approved additional contracts with the charter companies Sun Coach Lines and Krise Transportation in July as part of the district’s efforts to retain more bus drivers. District officials have said they are working with the 21 companies that transport PPS students to recruit more drivers. But some of the smaller transportation providers said they had little-to-no contact with the district.

“I think they have helped larger companies … but they haven’t attempted to do anything with us at all,” said John Norman, a manager of EX Transportation.

By the end of July, Sierra Transportation office manager Mary Taylor said PPS hadn’t reached out to the company at all. Their staff of 23 drivers fell to four drivers over the course of the pandemic.

The driver shortages are an added difficulty to an already challenging school year, said Lori Casey, the director of transportation for Central Bucks School District, the third largest school district in Pennsylvania. Though she thinks transportation is a priority for districts, Casey said school officials across the country are “trying to deal with so much right now I do believe that it’s definitely overwhelming for everybody.”

PPS is still short on transportation. Students go back to school on Sept. 3.

Updated: September 3, 2021 at 5:18 PM EDT
Updated to clarify the PPS policy on transportation reimbursements for families.
Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.