‘As adults, we failed’: New Jersey’s school bus driver shortage grows ‘dire’

Suzanne Tuttle was about to call the police. Her 4-year old son, Max, should have been home from his first day of prekindergarten at J. Harvey Rodgers School in Glassboro four hours earlier, but his bus still had not arrived.

Tuttle had received a robocall from the school earlier in the day telling her to expect delays because of a shortage of bus drivers, but after waiting for two hours at the stop in 90-degree heat, Max was still missing. Tuttle, her husband and mother desperately called and texted the school and even got a passing bus driver to radio other buses. No one knew where Max’s bus was.

“I want to believe my son is safe, but nobody is at school and nobody is answering calls or the radio — and at this point it’s 5:30 and I put that little boy on a bus at 7:45 in the morning,” Tuttle said in an interview. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Finally, at about 6 p.m., a minibus carrying Max and other children arrived and dropped him off. Tuttle said Max was hungry but otherwise calm. Other kids on the bus were crying.

Amid a nationwide bus driver shortage, many New Jersey families say they‘ve been worn down by endless lengthy delays, no-show drivers and poor communication from districts. Three weeks into the school year, parents and school leaders say the shortage is becoming a crisis and they’re demanding the state take action.

It’s unclear how widespread the driver shortage is in New Jersey. The state Department of Education did not respond to multiple requests for comment or to answer questions about how many districts they’ve heard from with busing issues.

But a review of local news stories, district websites and parent Facebook groups reveals kids in Glassboro, Camden, Paterson, Deptford, Jersey City, Wayne, Toms River and dozens of other districts have been left waiting for hours or were never picked up at all.

The shortage of drivers is just one more obstacle schools and parents have faced this school year in addition to mask mandates, structural building issues and learning loss brought about by the pandemic, as well as flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.

To be sure, bus driver shortages are nothing new. Even before the pandemic, many districts struggled to contract with companies as drivers with Commercial Drivers Licenses were being lured away to jobs with higher pay, better benefits and more regular hours.

Now, with the Delta variant raging across the country, drivers are even more reluctant to board an enclosed vehicle with 50 potentially-unvaccinated kids who may or may not abide by mask mandates. Some drivers quit when mask and vaccine mandates were issued by state and federal leaders.

Across the country, states and school districts are frantically trying to find solutions to the shortage — Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker activated the National Guard, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is targeting the onerous licensing process, the School District of Philadelphia is paying parents to drive their kids and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan created a “Bus Drivers’ Day at the MVA” to streamline appointment scheduling for bus driver trainees.

New Jersey has not yet presented a statewide plan, though individual districts are patching together fixes where they can, including offering parents cash to transport their kids and launching social media campaigns to recruit community members to apply for CDLs.

In Camden — a district under state control — Serita Young said she was told just before classes started that a bus would not be available to take her son to the new Camden High School, but that he could get tickets to use NJ Transit to get himself to school.

Young said she tried calling school officials to explain her son tore ligaments in his ankle over the summer and needs crutches and a medical boot, and that mass transit is not an option for him.

She said she was told essentially, “there’s nothing we can do.” Her son is one of around 500 students in Camden who still don’t have secured transportation from the district.

Now, Young said, she’s paying $140 a week, out of pocket, for an Uber or Lyft to transport her son to school.

“I’m frustrated, I’m aggravated. It’s not a guarantee that I can keep up with the money,” Young said. “These kids are being forced either to walk or catch NJ Transit when a bus should be provided … where are the buses we were promised?”

Parents POLITICO spoke to said that at the beginning of the school year, they understood the driver shortage was not unique to their town or even their state and were willing to be flexible wherever they could.

Now, they say they‘re furious and exhausted and fed up with the lack of answers from their districts. School leaders told POLITICO the issue is too big to tackle on a local level — the preferred problem-solving method of Gov. Phil Murphy’s Department of Education.

“We need help, we’re failing our kids,” Paterson Public Schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer said in an interview. “It’s discriminatory. Those kids who need transportation, many of them are special needs and we’re discriminating against them.”

Shafer said that just before the first day of school earlier this month, she had several bus companies quit, saying they didn’t have enough drivers, leaving some 700 students without busing.

Despite Murphy’s insistence that all students attend class in-person, full-time this year, some schools in Paterson and Camden have resorted to online learning — not because of Covid outbreaks but because there was no way to get kids to class.

Shafer said she’s reached out to the state Department of Education to request help and offer solutions, such as paying parents to drive their kids to school, enlisting the help of local police and firefighters, even calling in the National Guard as Massachusetts has done.

She said she’s still waiting for a response.

“As adults, we failed,” Shafer said. “We need some answers and we need them quick. We’re already into the third week of September.”

Responding to reporters’ questions about the shortage during his regular briefing on Wednesday, Murphy said, “I think all options are on the table, including anything we could do with the [Motor Vehicle Commission].“ But, he said, “I don’t think we, at this moment, feel like we need to do what Massachusetts did with the National Guard, but that’s an option that we certainly could look at.”

Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, who was at the briefing, did not weigh in.

Camden City Schools Superintendent Katrina McCombs said in an interview she had begun thinking of creative solutions to the potential dearth of drivers back in June, including staggering school start times to allow drivers to cover more routes. Still, she said, vendors were calling her on the first day of classes saying drivers were quitting.

“I don’t think any of us realized how dire the bus driver shortage was and how dire it would be,” McCombs said.

This week, the district announced it will offer parents $1,000 to drive their children to and from school every day.

McCombs said the group typically hired as drivers — retirees and older individuals— were hit especially hard by Covid and it’s been a challenge to diversify the driver applicant pool.

In New Jersey, those who want to pursue the job amid the shortage face steep barriers. School administrators have said state motor vehicle agencies have been offering limited operations because of the pandemic and there have been significant delays in background checks for drivers.

Chloe Williams, president of the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association, said in an interview the CDL process is “a chore” and designed for long-haul truckers rather than school bus drivers. She said it can normally take 10 to 12 weeks for drivers to get their license, but with the pandemic “the backlog at motor vehicles has been horrendous.”

Williams said though she sees “a light at the end of the tunnel,” with driver applications coming in, “it may be next school year that we really see a huge improvement.”

One Glassboro school board member told parents at a special meeting Tuesday that the state Department of Transportation does not have any appointments available to accommodate out-of-state drivers with a CDL who may want to drive buses in New Jersey.

The school transportation crisis has been well-documented in nearly every state. But parents POLITICO spoke to said they’re watching as governors and school leaders in Ohio, New York, Massachusetts and Maryland take action or at the very least, acknowledge the problem.

It’s been crickets in New Jersey, parents said.

In Glassboro, Tuttle and dozens of other upset parents blasted Superintendent Mark Silverstein during this week’s special board meeting.

“The district has known that there have been problems in transportation for a very long time but they’re not solving the problem,” parent Natalie Kautz said. “They’re hoping beyond hope that some bus drivers will come out of the woodwork and will come sign up to work at Glassboro schools but they haven’t come.”

While administrators and elected officials ponder policy solutions, parents like South Camden’s Maria Montero say they can’t wait any longer.

“I can’t afford for someone to make a mistake,” Montero said. “My biggest fear is once we leave them at a stop, if the bus doesn’t come, these kids are going to end up getting hit by a car. They could step on a needle … It’s so sad, these kids were so ready to go back after being home for so long. But these buildings are not ready, these buses are not ready, the systems are not ready.”

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