Students in the Niskayuna school district learn from home on Friday after a shortage of bus drivers made the district virtual.
This is the first time the district has to go all virtual this school year. Parents were notified of the change on Wednesday.
“Considering the number of bus drivers that we know will be absent on Friday, there is no way to properly manage our transportation system,” Acting Superintendent Juliette Pennyman said in a post on the district website. “We apologize for the inconvenience.”
That same message was sent to families at midday on Wednesday after the district determined it was unable to provide drivers for 13 of its 56 routes, said Matt Leon, spokesperson for the district.
âIt was a one-day problem due to the lack of drivers for this number of routes,â he said in an email Thursday. âIt was the result of sick, bereavement and personal leave on Friday. Although we were understaffed this year, we managed to make it work. With this number of routes discovered, we couldn’t get the bus system to work on Friday. “
The district provided families with guidelines on how the day would unfold based on the student’s grade level. Children in the stand-alone special education program will continue to meet in person and have been provided with transportation.
It was a relief for mother Barbara Graber, who has a seventh grade student in the program.
“It would be more difficult if he was not in school tomorrow,” she said Thursday, a day off for schoolchildren on Veterans Day.
Her other three children – a kindergarten child, a ninth and an eleventh – will learn remotely through Google classrooms on Friday.
Graber said Thursday that his older children would struggle with virtual learning, but keeping his younger ones focused would also be a struggle.
âOur kindergarten is a very active boy, he needs the structure of the school,â she said.
But the other big challenge is for the parents, Graber said.
She said she was lucky because she was staying at home. However, many of her friends are parents who work outside the home. Graber said she couldn’t imagine having to find a babysitter or try to work from home while helping a child at school.
The disruption won’t be a problem for parent Libbie Cococcia, also a stay-at-home parent who has a husband who can work remotely. She has a third and a sixth.
âFor a lot of other families, I can see this is a big drawback,â she said.
She said, however, that the district informed people of the change in good time and made sure that students brought home the equipment they would need for work, including Chromebooks provided by the district to students. Because her kids were completely virtual last year, they’re used to having a desk for school work where they can stay focused, she said.
She jokingly posted on social media that friends could drop their kids off for her for the day and although she received light comments, she said, but that post also sparked a wider conversation on transport problems in the community.
The district has had problems since the start of the year, she said: “I feel like it could have been avoided.”
Perhaps offering a competitive salary to other districts would attract more drivers to the wheel, she said.
âFrankly, I would like to see it at $ 30â an hour, she said.
The district has tried to recruit and retain more drivers. Last month, the school board passed temporary changes to its collective agreement with bus drivers. The changes increased driver wages to $ 23 per hour, an increase of $ 3 per hour. Drivers who work full-time until Dec. 1 will receive a retention allowance of $ 500, according to the agreement.
Drivers who stay until the end of the school year will receive an additional $ 500, which will be paid within two weeks of the last day of school.
The district currently has 53 drivers and another 10 drivers undergoing training and certification, Leon said.
âIt can take up to two months for a driver to be trained and certified,â he said. âIt may take a few weeks or less if they already have a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License). Future drivers often work as bus helpers and are paid during the training period.
Bus driver shortages plague districts statewide, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of advocacy, research and communications for the State Council of Principals.
âIt’s a huge problem,â he said.
At a statewide conference in September, each superintendent expressed concern about the number of drivers, he said.
Part of the problem is with the people who typically drive school buses, often the elderly, who fear that line of employment since the pandemic.
At first, concerns were also raised about weekly driver testing, Lowry said. This led the districts to carry out on-site tests.
“But I can’t say to what extent, if any, this concern has been confirmed and contributes to the shortages we are currently experiencing,” Lowry said.
Some of the challenges began several years ago when the federal commercial driver’s license law changed, requiring drivers to have mechanical knowledge of the vehicle they were driving, he said. While this might make sense for drivers of large trucks, Lowry said it doesn’t make sense for bus drivers who don’t travel that far and park buses in a garage at the end of the day.
In addition, the work of bus drivers usually involves a split shift, which means that the drivers make one trip in the morning and a second in the afternoon. For someone who might want a second job, that schedule is not compatible, Lowry said.
The state has been monitoring the issue and has kept in touch with the council, Lowry added. In September, the governor’s office pushed for more people with business licenses to become drivers and expanded testing sites for commercial driver’s licenses. The Department of Motor Vehicles has also been tasked with speeding up the process for these licenses.
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