NIAGARA FALLS & CASSADAGA, N.Y. (WKBW) — The ongoing bus driver shortage in Western New York area is now forcing some schools to make some major changes.
Officials with the Niagara Falls City School District said they may need to begin letting high school students out early to get students home at a reasonable time.
A survey from the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) shows every region of the country has struggled with bus driver shortages, this year. More than half of schools have said the shortage is severe or desperate, and two thirds responded to the survey by reporting the shortage is their number one problem or concern.
Niagara Falls is not alone in considering changes to the school day.
More than 80% of schools in that national survey stated it already altered high school schedules in response to the shortage.
"To not do anything continues to put students' safety, I believe, at harm and there are factors outside of our control; the weather and time change, are only going to exacerbate this problem," Niagara Falls City School District superintendent, Mark Laurrie said.
Schools are halfway through the first semester of the school year, and school districts across the nation still face the challenge of filling bus driver positions.
The effects are trickling down into the classroom.
"I do not like giving up one instructional minute. In this case, each class at the high school will miss three instructional minutes per period. It is hopefully short term. I'm talking about through the end of this school year, but it's absolutely imperative that we do something," Laurrie said.
The significant bus driver shortage is hitting hard at the end of the school day, for the district.
High school and elementary school students in the Niagara Falls City School District both dismiss at 3:00 p.m. The district needs 60-65 bus drivers to transport the students, but the it is averaging 35-40 bus drivers.
"We're getting kids home at 5:15 and 5:30. In less than 2 weeks, Daylight Saving Time is going to kick in and it's going to get dark early. In a very short time, the weather is going to change for the worse, unfortunately. Roads are going to become difficult and slower. It is not right to have kids sit in the cafeteria and auditorium and wait 60-90 minutes to get on their bus, after the school day has ended," Laurrie said.
He is proposing an early dismissal for high school students by about 30 minutes.
"That will allow the high school students and middle school students to get home off their buses, be there for younger siblings and have those same buses swing right to an elementary school and pick up the elementary school students. Have them transported out of the school buildings by 3:10 p.m., Laurrie said.
Laurrie said the district has offered incentives like a signing bonus and pay between $23 and $25/hour.
"The district working with the bus company has offered the ability to drive buses in the morning, work for the district in the middle of the day, and then drive buses in the afternoon. There have been numerous attempts to speak with those in the area who have CDL licenses who aren't working, but we're only picking up five to seven drivers. That only covers the absences for the drivers who have COVID," Laurrie said.
However, these incentives are not enough for more drivers to apply.
Cassadaga Valley Central School District superintendent, Chuck Leichner said, "The demands for a bus driver is very high. It's a difficult job. It's an important job and it's a challenging job. It's tough for people because it's not a full time job either, often times. A full-time driver drives a morning run and an afternoon run, and they may have nothing going in between so it's not a 40-hour work-week. We called a regular driver as opposed to full-time for that reason. It's tough for folks to make that every day commitment to a schedule that's chopped up that way."
The shortage has become a national crisis. Teachers and basketball coaches, in Texas, have been asked to drive buses. In Pennsylvania, some districts are paying families $300/month to voluntarily opt out of bus pickups.
"It's a huge responsibility. There are kids in our district and every district that this is their only way to get to school, their sporting practices and games," Cassadaga Valley Central School district bus driver, Debb Howard said. "We don't do it just for the heck of it. We enjoy spending time with kids."
Debb Howard is a 25-year bus driver veteran for the school district. She said a lot of times, the job is more than just driving students around.
"Student discipline, safety. We teach the kids proper crossing procedures, proper bus riding procedures. A lot of times, we settle a little squabble and tell the kids, basically, you don't all have to be friends but you don't have to be mean to one another," Howard said. "A lot of times we wind up being some of the best friends that the kids can have. A confidant. A lot of times, we are the faces the kids can see in the morning."
The shortage is impacting bus staff as well.
"Last week, we had a driver that was called out of town. We had a real bad shape with an injury and we just had a couple of runs that we could not, absolutely could not cover a few days and it put us in a really bad spot. We did the best that we could, but it inconvenienced a lot of families, but we got through it the best that we could," Howard said.
Cassadaga Valley Central is down at least two school bus drivers.
Leichner said, "When a small district like ours, two or three employees make all the difference in the world."
Additionally, Leichner said the school bus driver shortage is not the only thing on the district's radar.
Leichner said, "It's employees, non-teaching staff, substitutes across the board we are struggling to find as our other school districts in our region, people to fill substitute positions."
The option of complete last resort will be virtual learning. Both superintendents said they wish to avoid that option as much as possible.
EDIT: 7ABC reached also reached out to various schools in Western New York, Monday.
Kenmore-Tonawanda Schools Community Relations Coordinator, Patrick Fanelli, stated the number of driver positions available in Ken-Ton at the present time is eight.
"We do have enough drivers to complete each run each day so we have not needed to make any modifications like those," Fanelli said.
Buffalo Public Schools also shared information. Special Assistant to the Superintendent for Public Relations, Elena Cala, said the following appeared in the superintendent's update on Friday, Oct. 22 in regards to transportation. First Student is the district's vendor which hires its bus drivers.
First Student executives presented to the Board on 10/20/21. They shared their recruiting and retention strategies and outlined the hiring and training processes for new bus drivers. We appreciate their partnership. The District has established a Transportation Work Committee to research and recommend actionable strategies to address the driver shortage crisis. The first meeting will be held on Thursday, October 28.
- The Transportation Department continues to adjust routing and consolidate bus routes.
- 624 families have opted out of transportation services.
- First Student has interviewed and extended contingent job offers to over 300 bus driver candidates.
- The process to on-board new bus drivers can take up to 10 weeks.
The District thanks our current bus drivers, who have shown unparalleled dedication to our students and families and are to be highly commended for their service.