DELMAR — Bethlehem Central’s long-term plans to implement a friendlier start to its school days continue to be thwarted by a “critical” bus driver shortage that has it just able to maintain its bus routes.
Bethlehem Central returned to a three-tier transportation system in September, allowing drivers to complete three runs to bus high school, middle school and elementary school students each morning and afternoon.
The current run schedule has required high school students to start their days at 7:35 a.m., which goes against the district’s effort to start classes later in the day. Last year, the district ran a two-tier system, allowing both high school and middle school students to start their days at 8 a.m.
“The decisions that lie ahead are two-fold: how do we ensure we meet the transportation needs of all students and families while making good on our commitment to a later start time at the high school,” said Superintendent Jody Monroe. “It is a complicated mix with no one-size-fits-all solution.”
Monroe said the district has begun looking at options that could meet these two goals. At the November 17 Board of Education meeting, the district provided a Transportation Update that outlined two areas for the Board to begin discussions regarding long-term solutions for both stability of K-12 transportation and a later start time at the high school.
The district currently has 59 permanent bus drivers — compared to the 87 drivers three years ago — to serve its 58 routes. The buses carry students in grades K-12 to seven schools within the district, to several out-of-district schools, and to athletics and other co-curricular events.
A nationwide bus driver shortage has plagued area school districts over the past several years, impacting their ability to hire and train new drivers. As older drivers retired, it became increasingly difficult to replace them. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the bus driver shortage worse.
So far, the district has looked to consolidate bus routes, implemented a student bus registration process, and increased efforts to recruit new drivers.
“This is a long-term problem that requires a long-term solution,” Monroe said. “We are struggling to keep our buses running on time with the number of drivers we have. We need to look at additional options for reducing the strain on our transportation system.”
The Board has asked district administrators to continue to move forward with looking at options to get to a later start time at the high school without jeopardizing bus service K-12. Discussions have included increasing walk distances to reduce bus routes and adjusting bell times at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels.
The district will resume public discussions of transportation options at a Board of Education meeting in January 2022.