DELMAR — Bethlehem Central has reached out to district families to plan around its shortage of bus drivers.
Administrators across the country are preparing to return students to the classroom when schools reopen after summer break. Buses and students factor into those plans each year, but Bethlehem Central is feeling the effects of what it calls a “critical bus driver shortage.”
The district emailed families for help last week, asking who needs to ride the bus and who doesn’t.
“The district needs to create more efficiencies in bus routes to address a shortage of bus drivers for 2021-22,” stated district officials. “The district must find ways to address this gap to ensure there are enough bus drivers to safely accommodate all students who need transportation.”
The district cited a national bus driver shortage exasperated by the pandemic. Prior to COVID, the district had 87 bus drivers and routes. Today, there are only 67 available bus drivers.
The issue is not unlike the shortage in CDL drivers the trucking industry has claimed over the years. Since the pandemic, companies have reported trouble finding or retaining the country’s estimated 300,000 to 500,000 long-haul truckers. The American Trucking Association, the largest national trade association for the trucking industry, has long claimed a shortage of drivers. Because of which, it has lobbied Washington D.C. to loosen regulations prohibiting operators younger than 21 from transporting goods across state lines.
The average CDL driver trends on the older side. According to the ATA, the average driver is 48 years old. Though the state transportation departments issue 450,000 new licenses each year, companies continue to have retention issues. Bethlehem Central said it will likely take years to recoup from its own reported 22 percent loss as drivers retire.
While the district continues to recruit new drivers, it is attempting to develop innovative ways to accommodate needs.
The Bethlehem Police Department is helping develop “walking school bus” routes for Eagle, Elsmere, Hamagrael and Slingerlands elementary schools. The district described a walking school bus as a “safe and fun way for children to get physical activity as they travel to and from school with adult supervision.”
Students would walk along a set route supervised by one or more adults. Children would be joined by an adult at a designated stop and walked to school. More information will be made available to families as plans are developed.
Families with children eligible for bus transportation have been asked to complete a mandatory registration form to state their needs. The district will use the collected information to create new bus routes.
The district is not changing how it determines who rides a bus. All elementary school students are eligible to ride. Middle school students who live more than a half mile away can also ride. Students who reside more than a mile away from the high school can also be assigned to a route. However, administrators are asking families who have been driving their children to school to continue doing so next year.
“The district is optimistic that all students will return to in-person learning in 2021-22. However, it is unknown whether social distancing requirements will continue to be in place for students who ride the bus,” stated officials. “These factors coupled with the bus driver shortage mean that the district must employ as many efficiencies as possible to ensure transportation is available for all who need it.”