Courtesy of Sadie Marshall

New Haven Public Schools, or NHPS,  is among the many school systems across the country experiencing a bus driver shortage. The shortage affects about 900 students across the district as of Oct. 9. 

The district is responsible for transporting about 18,000 students each day, according to Justin Harmon, the NHPS director of marketing and communications. Roughly five percent of them are experiencing delays of 10 minutes or more in pick-up or drop-off — sometimes both. District officials are estimating that the shortage may continue through the end of the month, if not longer. 

“We’re part of a national challenge, which is that there aren’t enough bus drivers,” Harmon told the News in an interview. “We normally have about 300 drivers, and we’re at about 275. So we’re combining routes, and that creates a certain amount of delays.”

While Manuel Camacho, a junior at Hillhouse High School, is not currently using the school bus service for personal reasons, he continues to observe the effects of the shortage on friends and peers. He said other students often arrive late to classes and wait for 15-20 minutes after dismissal for buses to pick them up. 

NHPS holds a contract with First Student, a United States-based division of multinational transport company FirstGroup. First Student provides student transport and school bus services in 39 states across the country and in Canada. According to Harmon, the company is responsible for all hiring and supervision of NHPS bus drivers as well as for establishing bus routes. 

According to Harmon, the bus company makes “changes day by day” given how many drivers are out. He said First Student aims to determine the “most efficient” routes based on the geographic distribution of schools and students along with staffing constraints.

Jen Biddinger, First Student’s corporate communications manager, echoed this sentiment in a written statement to the News.

“Depending on daily staffing levels, we are having to adjust some bus routes,” Biddinger wrote. “While this can create delays, it enables us to provide service to as many students as possible. We are working closely with New Haven Public Schools to minimize the impact to families.”

Harmon said that First Student has been “pretty successful at minimizing delays” thus far. He said most cases of delays involve students arriving within 10 minutes, with the rare half-hour delay attributed to events out of the district’s control, such as road closures or accidents, which would happen during any school year. 

Harmon also said a current priority for the district is ensuring that students and families are appropriately informed of changes to routes and times — specifically noting that families are notified “whenever possible” and “particularly if it’s going to be a long delay.” 

Camacho, however, said community members are not always informed of route changes. 

“What I’ve noticed is when many of these changes happen, sometimes people aren’t really notified,” he said. “You have students who will be right at the bus stop … and then they’re missing school because the bus never comes… And then when the teacher asks, ‘Why were you absent yesterday?,’ ‘Well, the bus never picked me up.’”

Due to a recent state mandate, all Connecticut state employees — including those employed by schools — were required to either provide proof of vaccination or submit to weekly testing by Sept. 27. Over 200 bus drivers in the state said they would strike in response to the mandate; However, NHPS did not expect similar responses among its drivers. 

Instead, the current NHPS shortage predates both the pandemic and the vaccination requirement, as Harmon said he has not heard of drivers choosing not to operate buses due to lack of compliance with either vaccination or testing expectations. Harmon and Biddinger did say, however, that the pandemic overall exacerbated the effects of the shortage. 

“The student transportation industry was already managing a bus driver shortage before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation,” Biddinger wrote. “We are no different than so many other job sectors that are struggling to fill openings, including retail, restaurants and hotels.”

In order to try and fill the gap, First Student is offering a hiring bonus to new drivers. Biddinger told the News that the company is offering “significant incentives” such as sign-on bonuses of $4,000 for drivers with commercial driver’s licenses and $1,500 to drivers without one. 

During a meeting of the Board of Education’s Finance and Operations Committee on Oct. 4, NHPS Director of Transportation Carl Jackson said the district was needing to “combine as many as 10 routes” due to an insufficient number of drivers. He also said he expects the shortage to continue through October. 

According to Harmon, it might take even longer for bus operations to return to normal.

“My sense of the bus situation is that we’re at least a couple of months out of anything like normalcy,” he said. “The transportation director has made routine reports to the Board of Education about it, and it just sounds as though the pipeline is too long to expect … [that] we’re going to have the desired amount of drivers in the next month or so. But we do hope that their efforts to recruit long term will pay off.”

As of the October committee meeting, about 65 percent of the district’s bus drivers were fully vaccinated, per a report from Jackson. One hundred twenty-four drivers had opted for weekly testing instead.

The school system considered the possibility of a shortage as early as this summer. In July — before the employee vaccination mandate went into effect — Jackson told the Board of Education that while district officials were “not anticipating [a driver shortage], it could happen because of the competitive nature of hiring bus drivers right now,” per coverage by the New Haven Independent.

At the time of this Board meeting, the Independent also reported that the district had 300 drivers committed for the fall, with another 46 going through training. 

Though Biddinger wrote to the News that the company does not publicly discuss contract details, Harmon wrote in a follow-up email that the current contract is set to end in June of 2023. 

The district currently has a $107 million five-year agreement with First Student.

ANIKA SETH