With school reopening a week away, some districts are working to reconfigure bus schedules for after-school activities because of a serious shortage of drivers.
Athletic events and other extracurricular activities appear to be the most likely to be affected in several districts because of the timing. Many athletic events depend on buses that depart about the same time as those transporting other students home. But, as daylight hours grow shorter in the fall, outdoor events could get squeezed.
In a letter in July to school districts, Brendan Clifford, vice president of operations at Huntington Coach, wrote, “We will continue our efforts to provide you with safe, professional drivers for your transportation services, but we continue to have increasing difficulty finding qualified applicants. It is certain there will be decisions that must be made, most notably in Athletic and other trip timing. We will work closely with the District to cover all home to school routes, but adjusting the scheduling of the Athletic Charter bus times may in fact be the only way to accommodate a fall sports season.”
Thomas J. Combs, executive director of Section XI, which oversees scholastic sports in Suffolk County, said the majority of the schools in the section are affected by the driver shortage. some He said that while some don’t have an issue–often districts with their transportation system staffed by employees–for others, the shortage is a problem.
He said schools may have to change from 4 to 4:30 or 5 p.m. game starts, which, as daylight hours become shorter in the fall, means that schools that don’t have good field lights may have to move their games to other venues, such as town parks, or share fields with neighboring schools. Others may have to move more games to Saturdays or Sundays. And some sports, such as field hockey, with junior varsity and varsity teams playing back to back games, will have to adjust, as well.
“They will have to think outside the box until the problem is gone,” he said.
And, in addition to requiring masks on buses, social distancing rules require making more room for players, meaning more buses are needed.
James W. Polansky, superintendent of Huntington schools, said the district will be working with Section XI and competing schools to find solutions to the schedule to accommodate sports.
And Dr. Rory Manning, superintendent of Harborfields, said the district is working with the issue day by day. “We’re trying to fully understand” the issue and solutions, he said, and looking for ways to accommodate all needs for service while keeping in mind how fewer hours of sunlight will affect athletic schedules.
South Huntington superintendent Dr. Vito D’Elia said said the district is working closely with Huntington Coach to ensure enough drivers to meet schedules. About half of the runs are provided by contractors; the other half by school employers. He said the district is adjusting athletic schedules in cooperation with other schools.
Last week, Half Hollow Hills transportation supervisor Maurita Coleman Simpson said at that point, the district had worked out all of its scheduling needs. It has a team of employees, supplemented by contractors, to transport its students.
“Like many other industries, the recent and ongoing pandemic has taken a toll on our workforce. During the shutdown and in the months since, many school bus drivers on Long Island changed careers, and many more moved out of New York State. We have done our best to maintain the drivers we have, and attract new ones, but the time needed to get drivers trained, certified and vetted through the New York State and federal background system continues to be a daunting challenge,” Clifford wrote in July.
The driver shortage isn’t limited to Huntington or even Long Island. Districts and bus companies around the country have resorted to a variety of ideas, including a charter school that is paying parents to drive their own children, to others that have reduced their services by making more children ineligible for busing, or paying large bonuses to new hires.