schools, bus drivers,
School buses parked on a lot in Stafford Springs Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

School bus operating companies, already using the word “crisis” to describe their staffing levels, said Tuesday a new state requirement that school contractors be vaccinated against the coronavirus will hinder their recruitment and retention efforts. 

In recent weeks, Gov. Ned Lamont has issued executive orders aimed in part at reducing spread of the COVID-19 virus when Connecticut schools begin opening their doors to students next week. One such order required a handful of workers to show proof of vaccination by Sept. 27 or consent to weekly COVID testing. 

Among those workers are K-12 school staff and teachers, as well as school contractors. A spokesman for the governor said the latter group includes bus drivers. That is certain to compound an existing staffing shortage in the industry, according to Jon Hipsher, chief operating officer of M&J Bus, a contractor serving 24 Connecticut towns.

“I’m just going to tell you, the timing of that couldn’t be worse,” Hipsher said Tuesday. “You are most likely going to have, throughout this industry, a lot of drivers that are not going to want — if they haven’t been vaccinated — they’re not going to want to be forced to be. That’s going to really hurt us.”

That’s because the busing industry in Connecticut and elsewhere is in the midst of a recruitment campaign in an effort to find qualified drivers to staff both trips to and from schools as well as to youth sporting events. 

Lamont’s vaccination requirement, announced last week, impacts state employees and workers at state hospitals in addition to school employees and contractors. Coupled with a statewide school masking order, the governor said the requirement should help to ensure safe in-person learning as the more-infectious Delta variant continues to fuel a surge in cases with the first day of school approaching. On Tuesday the infection rate remained elevated at 3.83%.

Asked about the mandate’s impact on the existing bus driver shortage, Max Reiss, Lamont’s chief spokesman, said the requirements were essential to the safe operation of schools.

“Ensuring our schools are as safe as they can be for teachers, staff and students is vital for the upcoming school year and the well-being of all involved,” Reiss said.

However, Hipsher said the news would complicate the industry’s hiring efforts. M&J and other members of the Connecticut School Transportation Association (COSTA) have retained a communications firm and launched a recruitment website, in hopes of attracting applicants. 

But a bus driver can’t be made overnight. Ann Baldwin of Baldwin Media said “onboarding” a new driver takes three months in some cases. Drivers need to obtain a commercial driver’s license and pass a background check. And according to Hipsher, the shortages are statewide.

“Every town is hurting,” Hipsher said. “Each location, we could hire multiple drivers.”

Without more drivers, busing companies will need to make changes. In some cases, routes may be consolidated, resulting in more students on buses longer. Some temporary consolidations made last year may become permanent changes. 

School athletic programs pose additional problems as competitions are often scheduled around the same time as school runs. Parents and districts may need to be flexible and willing to adjust their schedules to accommodate longer bus runs and later arrivals, Hipsher said.

Busing companies are hoping to attract job seekers looking for good-paying part-time employment. Hipsher said hourly rates typically run between $18 and $24 an hour. 

“It’s a job that can be very flexible. If you’re a stay-at-home mom or stay-at-home dad you can bring your kids on the bus with you so you don’t need day care,” Baldwin said. “It’s a great option for retirees because it gives them some extra income.”

It is unclear to what extent a vaccine requirement will impact recruitment efforts or retention of existing drivers. Hipsher could not estimate how many drivers had so far opted not to take the vaccine. Up until now, busing companies hadn’t asked the question, he said. The task of collecting that information would fall on a staff that’s already stretched thin and did not bode well for their efforts to bolster it, he said. 

“This is going to significantly impair retention and hiring efforts for all of us,” Hipsher said.