BALLSTON SPA – The nationwide shortage of bus drivers during the COVID-19 pandemic has made its way to the Ballston Spa Central School District, forcing it to pivot to remote learning on Friday, Superintendent Kenneth Slentz said.
But it’s only expected to be a one-day occurrence, Slentz said.
Ten drivers aren’t available to work Friday.
So far this year, two to three per day have been out, which the district has managed by shuffling office staff and mechanics to cover bus runs, Slentz said.
Bus drivers do a “double run” each day, covering both the middle and high school in the morning, then going back out to get elementary students, he said.
“So each driver has at least four runs, if not more during the day,” he said. “So now that you have 10 drivers out, you have at least 40 runs to cover, and we just don’t have the staff or the subs to be able to do that.”
The district provides about 260 daily bus runs, including going out to specialized schools and out-of-district programs.
“Each day, as I suggested, we have two to three drivers out. We have drivers who have tested positive (for the virus), we have drivers who are quarantined, we have drivers who are ill, non-COVID related – and we have drivers who have funerals to attend. All of these things came together in one day, unfortunately,” the school chief said.
With the exception of a few drivers who will be in quarantine, the district expects most drivers back to work on Monday.
“Even if we have those typical two to three people out, we’ll have coverage with office staff and mechanics,” Slentz said.
At the district’s transportation facility, a sign read “Ballston Spa needs you, school bus drivers wanted,” with paid training.
Slentz said the plea hasn’t garnered much interest.
“We’re getting a few, but the market is very different now. You can come here and make X, or you can drive 20 miles down the road and you can make X plus five,” he suggested. “We’re competing for drivers because other districts, they might offer a signing bonus.”
The district is offering paid $17 per hour training to attract drivers and keep them in its pipeline.
Driving a school bus isn’t convenient for everyone, Slentz suggested.
“I’m going to date myself,” Slentz said, “but when you had farmers, it worked out perfectly, in between milking and chores. Those days are long gone. And so now we’re looking oftentimes to retirees, and many of these folks are at risk within the COVID categories – so that’s another challenge. Some of those drivers have decided the risk is too great, and they didn’t come back this year.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s staff sent the district a list of people in the region who have expressed interest in driving buses for the district, which resulted in a couple of new drivers.
“But even with that – just because you’re interested, you’re still eight to 10 weeks from being behind the wheel of that school bus, because of the requirements that are in place,” Slentz said. “So there is no immediate fix to this issue.”
To address the statewide bus driver shortage, Hochul announced several short-term and long-term initiatives, including opening new testing sites for commercial drivers license applicants, expediting the testing and permitting process and conducting outreach to law enforcement, firefighters, military and other organizations that already have paid training.
Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.