By DANIEL KITTREDGE Cranston Public Schools families are being asked to drive their children to school if possible, citing a shortage of bus drivers for the district's fleet that may force buses to make multiple runs and delay end-of-day drop-off times.
Cranston Public Schools families are being asked to drive their children to school if possible, citing a shortage of bus drivers for the district’s fleet that may force buses to make multiple runs and delay end-of-day drop-off times.
“As the school year begins, we are currently experiencing a shortage of school bus drivers,” reads a message sent to families from the district’s administration last week. “This issue is not specific to Cranston Public Schools, but is a nationwide problem being experienced across the transportation industry. While there are no longer capacity limitations based on COVID protocols, staffing shortage is causing this problem.”
It continues: “Because of the impact of this national shortage on our school district, we are asking for your help. This issue may cause elementary students, in particular, to arrive home later in the afternoon than usual. We may need to ‘double up’ on bus runs, and delay times of students arriving home. We recommend that anyone who is able to transport their child to and from school, to please do so. We realize that this is an inconvenience for many families, and we do apologize and appreciate your cooperation. We are hopeful that as the year progresses, we will be able to successfully address this issue.”
On Monday afternoon, Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse said the district is facing a shortage of roughly eight to 10 drivers. For context, its fleet – operated in-house, rather than through a third-party provider like First Student – totals about 80 buses. She estimated roughly 10 percent of routes are not fully covered with drivers as the school year begins.
As noted in multiple media reports regarding Cranston Public Schools’ announcement, the bus driver shortage extends well beyond the city.
Bill Roche, vice president of first student, told WPRI that his company – the largest of its kind in the state – typically has a driver shortage of between 10 and 15 percent. This year, he said, that figure is up to 25 to 30 percent.
“Every bus company is in the same position,” Rouche told WPRI.
A Google search for “school bus driver shortage” revealed similar reports from across the country, including states like Illinois, New York, Missouri and Maryland. A recent New York Times headline on the issue reads: “As Schools Reopen, Districts Are Desperate for Bus Drivers.”
Nota-Masse said there are multiple factors behind the shortage in Cranston. In some cases, long-time drivers haven’t returned. In others, newer drivers have gone on leave.
“The reasons for the vacancies are varied,” she said, adding: “It’s not unique to Cranston … It’s all over the state definitely, and from what I’m seeing it’s a national problem.”
The superintendent said the complexity of the school busing system makes flexibility challenging in normal circumstances, but especially difficult with more limited staff than usual. As a result, there are few options to address the situation beyond doubling-up routes and asking for families’ help with transportation.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” she said.
Nota-Masse said Cranston Public Schools is not currently offering any signing bonus or other incentive to fill the positions. But she said the district offers a “very generous” benefits package for its drivers compared with private providers like First Student, as well as regular compensation that is “on par” with those companies. It is hoped the in-house nature of Cranston’s system will also be a draw for potential drivers, who require a CDL, state testing and background checks before hitting the road.
The bus driver shortage isn’t the first staffing issue to face schools during the pandemic. Nota-Masse said the district continues to need substitute teachers, particularly in the area of special education.
Overall, as the new school year begins, Nota-Masse struck a note of optimism. On Monday, she said she had just completed a tour of several school buildings ahead of the return of elementary students and transition grades on Tuesday.
“The buildings look good. Everyone’s ready … I think people are just really, really happy to see kids return,” she said.
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