School buses
School buses. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut school bus operators were expecting delays Monday as potentially hundreds of drivers unwilling to be tested or vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus were barred from work when a state vaccine mandate took effect. 

Operators estimated Friday that between 300 and 400 drivers across the state would not adhere to the requirement, issued by Gov. Ned Lamont, that people working with school children be vaccinated against the coronavirus or consent to weekly testing before Sept. 27. 

Jon Hipsher, a representative of the Connecticut School Transportation Association and chief operating officer of M&J Bus, said the resulting vacancies would exacerbate an existing staffing shortfall in the busing industry. 

“There are many districts where parents should expect further delays and potentially buses that aren’t running in certain towns,” Hipsher said Friday. “Give us a little bit more patience than you even have been, if we can ask for that. Just while we see how the first few days of next week are going to go.” 

Hipsher said the shortfall varies by town but said there would be pockets of driver shortages in all four corners of Connecticut. Operators who can, will likely further consolidate their routes and others may send drivers on back-to-back runs, he said. 

In addition to bus drivers, the new vaccine or testing requirement kicks in Monday for K-12 school staff and teachers, state employees, and staff at state hospitals. At a public hearing Wednesday, several bus drivers told Republican lawmakers they did not want to take the vaccine or be tested, even when their employers offered to pay for the testing. 

Bristol bus driver Ashley Madore said she did not want to be vaccinated, telling members of the Conservative Caucus that her choice was a religious matter and it was “against God to put anything into my body.” Madore said around 25 bus drivers in Bristol were opposed. 

“We’re hurting. We’re struggling to fill the routes and pick up these kids and bring them to school as it is and it’s only going to get worse if these mandates aren’t lifted and we’re continued to be forced to either vaccinate or test because these drivers, they don’t want this,” Madore said.

Asked Thursday about the driver shortage, the governor defended the requirement for bus drivers as a way to keep drivers and school children safe from the virus. As of Thursday, the Public Health Department estimated that unvaccinated people were at five times higher risk of infection and 13 times higher risk of being hospitalized with COVID-19.

“I’m making sure our kids are able to get to school. I’d just tell the bus drivers: you’re in a tight congregate setting– a bus, surrounded by kids who aren’t vaccinated,” Lamont said. “We’re trying to keep you safe and we’re trying to keep them safe.”

In a letter to Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker, Jean Cronin of the Connecticut School Transportation Association said “The people who do not want to get vaccinated will not be pushed, cajoled, bribed, threatened or convinced in any way to get a COVID shot.  They have many reasons, including privacy, principle, safety fears, mistrust of government, violation of rights, politics and not wanting to be pushed.  It is a war of wills and government is losing.”

She said if testing is not convenient many will not be able to come to work. There’s also questions about who will pay for the testing.

“Each week the school bus companies risk losing more drivers who find the testing mandate to be burdensome and inconvenient,” Cronin wrote.  “As they leave, it will take months to recruit, train and test new drivers, assuming we can find anyone interested in applying.” 

She said these are the same drivers who safely transported students all last year.

“Drivers and students were never closer than 3 feet to each other for a few brief seconds while boarding and exiting the bus and there were no incidents of COVID transmission from driver to student in any school district.  Why would school bus drivers even need to be included in the COVID vaccine mandate?” Cronin said.

In response to requests from some communities facing similar shortfalls, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker activated National Guard troops and began training them as substitute bus drivers last month. 

Lamont and his staff said local leaders in Connecticut had not requested National Guard support, but his administration had expedited the approving new bus drivers and connected Medicaid transport drivers with local districts to help with the transportation of special education students. 

Hipshire said the solutions offered by the administration would not address the problem, which was a shortage of people able to drive full and mid-sized yellow school buses. He called on the governor to scrap or delay his order. 

“The governor’s the only one who can help us right now. Either get rid of this mandate or significantly extend it so people have more time to process it,” Hipsher said.  

On Friday, Max Reiss, the governor’s chief spokesman, said there were no plans to delay the date but said the administration was working to provide support and resources where necessary.

Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer, said the state had heard anecdotal reports from school districts and was hoping the number of people who chose to leave their bus driver jobs would be relatively low.

“We’re hopeful at the end of the day, as the governor said, drivers will understand the importance of these actions to keep themselves and their own families as well as the children that they serve safe every day and we won’t see a lot of people resign on Monday,” Geballe said.