Approaching holidays, New Jersey schools still need bus drivers
Nearly three months into the school year, tweaks continue to be made to accommodate a lack of bus drivers.
Any shortage isn't nearly as bad as it was a year ago, or even just a few months ago, but districts and bus contractors are operating on pretty thin ice and would still gladly welcome more drivers to their ranks.
"There's pockets where employment is better. Maybe it's harder to get a driver in one district than another," said Chloe Williams, president of the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association.
The average age of a school bus driver has dipped a bit in the Garden State, Williams noted, as younger individuals fill spots left behind by older workers who hung up their keys for good during the coronavirus pandemic.
Hiring of drivers is "steadily improving" in the state, according to Williams. But getting students to school on time isn't as automatic these days as in past years. Some districts have been forced to shift their bell times in order to allow drivers to catch up on their routes.
Staff shortages throughout the employee spectrum, including drivers, remain significant, according to the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. Richard Bozza, executive director, said the association has formed a special committee that's investigating the problem and potential solutions.
To lessen the pressure of staffing, Deptford Township Public Schools started the 2022-2023 academic year by combining middle school and high school students on the same buses.
The idea resulted in traffic backups at the schools and it was scrapped.
The district is relying on external help this year but continues to search for applicants. On top of competitive pay, the district is offering bonuses to drivers who work 175 to 180 days of the school year.
"If one or two people are out sick, it's not the end of the world. But if you get three, four, five, you're kind of in a bad way," said Sal Randazzo, the district's coordinator of communications.