The driver shortage began before the pandemic, and accelerated last year. There is still a gap to be filled by the beginning of the school year.
With so many students returning to in-person learning this year, getting them there safely has become an issue, with school districts racing to make sure they have everything in place, and sometimes competing for drivers.
There was concern among parents when the School District announced in July they would be changing the start times at many schools to accommodate transportation needs, trading off scheduling difficulties for parents, especially those with multiple children or their own long commute. Some of these issues have since been resolved, but there is still a shortage of bus drivers, both for public and private schools.
Sague Bus, in Lafayette Hill, serves routes for both public and private schools in the Philadelphia and Colonial school districts. Family owned and operated since 1933, they usually have 45 drivers and 38 buses in operation running 25 routes. From March to September 2020, they were shut down for the first time in their history. When thing opened up, it was still some time before drivers were needed for sports events. A number of their older drivers decided it was time to retire. They’re short 10 drivers right now.
Jennifer McMenamin, great-granddaughter of founder John S. Sague, is the company's President and Office Manager. She said the shortage actually started before the pandemic lockdown.
“A lot of drivers want part-time,” she said. “Most work around 20-30 hours a week.”
Bus drivers can work a full day, with morning and afternoon school runs and class trips. Transporting a team to a sporting event can be five hours. “And a lot of them don’t realize how much training is involved,” said McMenamin. “They think it would be nice to drive a school bus but then they find out it’s not that simple.”
Some of the shortages are the result of bus drivers being laid off during the pandemic and not returning, either because they found other work or felt the health risk was too great; many bus drivers are retired people doing the work for extra income, or were concerned about spending long daily rides with children too young to qualify for vaccination.
Vendors are offering incentives, such as signing bonuses, but there is still a gap to be filled by the beginning of the school year.
The ride itself is as safe as possible. Like other school bus services, Sague posts their safety protocols, including: drivers will open every window to the first notch to increase ventilation in the bus before each trip; the interior of the school bus will be cleaned daily; assigned, socially distant seating; everyone will be masked, and drivers will be tested, or at least have their temperatures taken.
For older students, things have become a little easier.
SEPTA spent the past year improving the air circulation on their buses and commuter trains. Students this year will receive a fare card instead of a weekly TransPass, which means a one-time card distribution for 65,000 eligible students instead of weekly rep