Finally, around 6 p.m., a minibus carrying Max and other children arrived and dropped him off. Tuttle said Max was hungry but was calm. Other children on the bus were crying.
Amid a nationwide bus driver shortage, many New Jersey families say they have been exhausted by endless delays, absent drivers and poor communication from districts. Three weeks after the start of the school year, parents and school leaders say the shortage is turning into a crisis and they are calling on the state to take action.
It is not known how widespread the driver shortage is in New Jersey. The state’s Education Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment or questions about the number of districts it has heard of with bus problems.
But a review of local news, district websites and parent Facebook groups reveals kids in Glassboro, Camden, Paterson, Deptford, Jersey City, Wayne, Toms River and dozens of other districts waited for hours. or have never been recovered at all. .
The driver shortage is just one more obstacle that schools and parents have faced this school year in addition to the mask mandates, structural construction issues and loss of learning brought on by the pandemic, as well as flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
Admittedly, the shortages of bus drivers are not new. Even before the pandemic, many districts struggled to contract with companies, as drivers with commercial licenses were drawn to better paying jobs, better benefits and more regular hours.
Now, with the Delta variant raging across the country, drivers are even more reluctant to board a closed vehicle with 50 potentially unvaccinated children who may or may not meet mask warrants. Some drivers resigned when mask and vaccine warrants 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 has activated the National Guard, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is targeting the onerous licensing process, the Philadelphia School District pays parents to drive their children, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has created an “Bus Drivers Day at MVA” to streamline the scheduling of appointments for bus driver interns.
New Jersey has yet to come up with a statewide plan, although individual districts have implemented fixes where they can, including offering parents money to transport their children. and launching social media campaigns to recruit community members to apply for CDLs.
In Camden – a state-controlled district – Serita Young said she was told just before school started that a bus would not be available to take her son to the new high school in Camden, but that he could get tickets to use NJ Transit to get to himself. at school.
Young said she tried calling school officials to explain that her son tore his ankle ligaments over the summer and needed crutches and a medical boot, and that public transit was not an option for him.
She said she was basically told, “there’s nothing we can do.” Her son is one of some 500 students in Camden who still do not have secure transportation from the neighborhood.
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 annoyed. It’s not a guarantee that I can follow the money, ”Young said. “These kids are being forced to walk or take the NJ Transit when a bus should be provided… where are the buses we were promised?”
Parents interviewed by POLITICO said that at the start of the school year they understood that the driver shortage was not unique to their city or even their state and were ready to be flexible wherever they needed it. could.
Now they say they are furious and exhausted and fed up with the lack of responses from their quarters. School leaders told POLITICO the problem was too important to tackle at the local level – the preferred problem-solving method of Governor Phil Murphy’s Education Department.
“We need help, we are letting our children down,” Paterson Public Schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer said in an interview. “It’s discriminatory. These children who need transportation, many of them have special needs and we discriminate against them.
Shafer said just before the first day of school earlier this month she had several bus companies quit, saying they did not have enough drivers, leaving some 700 students without buses.
Despite Murphy’s insistence that all students attend in-person, full-time classes this year, some schools in Paterson and Camden have resorted to e-learning – not because of the Covid epidemics but because that there was no way to get the kids to class.
Shafer said she contacted the state’s education ministry to ask for help and offer solutions, such as paying parents to drive their children to school, enlisting the help of the police and local firefighters, even calling the National Guard like Massachusetts did.
She said she was still waiting for a response.
“As adults we have failed,” Shafer said. “We need answers and we need them fast. We are already in 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 feel, right now, that we need to do what Massachusetts did with the National Guard, but that’s an option we could. definitely consider. “
Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, who was present at the briefing, did not speak.
Camden City Schools Superintendent Katrina McCombs said in an interview that she started thinking about creative solutions to the potential driver shortage in June, including staggering class start times to allow drivers to travel more routes. Still, she said, salespeople would call her on the first day of class to tell her the drivers were quitting.
“I don’t think any of us realized how bad the bus driver shortage was and how bad it would be,” McCombs said.
This week, the district announced that it will offer parents $ 1,000 to drive their children to school every day.
McCombs said the group typically hired as drivers – retirees and seniors – had been particularly affected by Covid and it was difficult to diversify the pool of applicants.
In New Jersey, those who wish to continue their work amid the shortage face significant hurdles. School administrators said state motor vehicle agencies were offering limited operations due to the pandemic and that there had been significant delays in driver background checks.
Chloe Williams, president of the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association, said in an interview that the CDL process is “a chore” and designed for long-haul truckers rather than school bus drivers. She said it normally takes 10 to 12 weeks for drivers to get their licenses, but with the pandemic, “the backlog of motor vehicles has been horrendous.”
Williams said that while she sees “a light at the end of the tunnel” with the driver nominations, “maybe it will be next school year that we really see a huge improvement.”
A Glassboro school board member told parents at a special meeting on Tuesday that the state Department of Transportation has no appointments available to greet out-of-state drivers with a CDL who might want to drive buses in New Jersey.
The school bus crisis has been well documented in almost every state. But parents POLITICO spoke to said they were watching governors and principals in Ohio, New York, Massachusetts and Maryland take action or, at the very least, recognize the problem.
It was crickets in New Jersey, the parents said.
In Glassboro, Tuttle and dozens of other upset parents blasted Superintendent Mark Silverstein at this week’s special board meeting.
“The district has known that there have been transportation issues for a very long time, but they are not solving the problem,” parent Natalie Kautz said. “They are hoping beyond hope that some bus drivers will come out of the woods and come and register to work in Glassboro schools, but they did not come.”
As administrators and elected officials mull over political solutions, parents like Maria Montero of South Camden say they can’t wait any longer.
“I can’t afford for someone to make a mistake,” Montero said. “My biggest fear is that once we leave them at a stop, if the bus doesn’t come, these kids will end up getting hit by a car. They could walk on a needle… It’s so sad, these kids were so ready to go home after being home for so long. But these buildings are not ready, these buses are not ready, the systems are not ready. “