Most of us remember the popular children’s song, “The Wheels on the Bus.” When we were kids, we sang it with our friends as we rode a yellow bus to school; as parents, we taught it to our own children.
But in every school district across the state, the future of the yellow bus is at risk. Pennsylvania is in danger of losing its school bus drivers and the businesses that employ them.
We must make certain that school buses and drivers are available to transport students when they return to the classroom. To ensure this happens, pupil transportation must be funded and supported as an essential service to Pennsylvania’s students and their families. This is true not only for charter and non-public pupil transportation but for all public schools as well.
As Pennsylvania’s school bus industry, our job is to keep the wheels on the bus going round and round. And we love what we do. Our mission is to safely transport more than 1.5 million Pennsylvania students to and from school each day, including an overwhelming majority of our state’s 300,000 special needs learners. That adds up to a remarkable 88% of Pennsylvania’s school-age children who rely on the yellow-bus industry every day. Many families have no other way to transport their children to school than to trust that a school bus will be there, in all kinds of weather, from dawn until dusk, during a pandemic and after it ends.
The Pennsylvania School Bus Association (PSBA), and the school bus contractors we represent, recognize the complexity of today’s back-to-school challenge as we tackle the implications of COVID-19 on the school bus industry. It doesn’t matter where a student goes to school — public, private, or charter — nearly nine out of 10 begin and end their day on a school bus. A successful return to school requires that school buses are rolling when we are back to full-time instruction, field trips, sporting events and all of the activities families expect for a well-rounded student experience.
Since the pandemic began, school bus contractors have been on the job doing what is needed to keep children and drivers safe. Locally owned school bus contractors have been leveraging their expertise to assist school districts as they prepare for an ever-changing variety of back-to-school scenarios.
School bus contractors have purchased equipment and supplies for cleaning and disinfecting buses and vans. Health screenings, increased sanitation protocols, masks and social distancing requirements have been implemented. Drivers have been trained on new guidelines to better protect their health and the health of their precious cargo. The industry will continue to be full partners in a safe return to school for Pennsylvania’s families.
At the same time as the pandemic, Pennsylvania and the rest of the country are facing a shortage of school bus drivers.
While the school bus industry has been reaching out to attract more drivers, it’s important that we not lose the highly trained workforce currently in place. The selection, screening and training process for prospective drivers is rigorous, and takes eight to 10 weeks to complete. Before any driver can get behind the wheel, they undergo careful evaluation that includes federal and state background checks. In addition, comprehensive training in the classroom and behind the wheel must be completed before a driver successfully passes their test and earns a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). School bus drivers represent a skilled workforce that cannot be replaced quickly or irresponsibly.
School bus driver shortages will worsen if the industry is not supported as an essential service during school closures or as schools adopt schedules with reduced in-person instruction. With districts either offering a hybrid schedule or moving to complete remote learning, any loss of funding will make it difficult for school bus contractors to maintain the current driver workforce and remain in business.
School bus transportation is recognized as the safest way to get students to and from school. Our goal is to maintain a ready workforce of drivers so we can respond immediately when schools return to normal schedules. Let’s make sure we keep the wheels on the bus going round and round.
Michael Berk is the executive director of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association.