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Bus Woes Leave Districts, Parents Frustrated

PennDOT going public with appeals for help; shortage expected to persist

By Siana Emery
The Tube City Almanac
October 18, 2021
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Parked school buses sit idle near Chicago. (John Picken photo via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)

After weeks of cancellations that have stranded hundreds of students, McKeesport Area School District and its school bus provider are operating under an agreement being monitored by an Allegheny County judge.

But McKeesport students aren’t the only ones who have found the beginning of the 2021-22 school year to be a bumpy ride.

On Monday, as part of School Bus Safety Week, the state Department of Transportation released a public service announcement from Rick Focht of Clearfield County-based Fullington Trailways Co. appealing for more drivers.

“Students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely riding on a school bus than in a private car. And the drivers are skilled professionals,” Focht said.

“Unfortunately there is a shortage of school bus drivers,” he said, urging viewers to contact their local school bus providers or school districts for information about employment: “It just might be the best job you never knew you would love.”

A survey released at the end of August by the National School Transportation Association estimated that approximately 80 percent of school districts across the country are facing driver shortages.

Nearly every morning since the beginning of September, McKeesport Area School District has made announcements to let families know which bus lines are not running that day.

One route, Bus 20, was canceled on nine separate occasions in September, district officials said.

Janina Riley, a parent of a student at Francis McClure Elementary School, spoke to the McKeesport Area School Board on Sept. 22 about the issue.

“When I hear you say you care about Black and brown kids, about their education, why is the bus that is busing the low-income neighborhood, majority Black kids [getting canceled] every day?” Riley said. “The only information we get is ‘sorry for the inconvenience, it will be excused.’”

Riley said she has had to take her son to school at least 10 times since the year began, and that he has had to stay home on a number of other occasions due to a lack of transportation.

“These decisions to not transport children are not controlled or made by the McKeesport Area School District,” the district said in a Facebook post on Sept. 30. “We are continuing to exhaust all legal options and other possibilities to resolve PA Coach Lines’ failure to transport our children.”

That week, McKeesport Area and two charter schools went to court to demand that Pennsylvania Coach Lines fulfill the terms of its contract with the school district, and for permission to seek alternative bus services.

On Oct. 8, Allegheny County Judge Arnold Klein directed the district to place monitors on school buses where the bus company has reported students are rowdy or disruptive, while also giving the district permission to seek alternative providers “if routes ... continue to be uncovered.”

Neither McKeesport Area School District nor Pennsylvania Coach Lines returned requests from Tube City Almanac seeking comment.

East Allegheny School Superintendent Alan Johnson said that so far this year, the district has not had any issues with Allegheny Transportation Services, the district’s bus provider.

“We’ve been fortunate that ATS has a good relationship with its drivers, and they tend to stay there,” Johnson said.

However, he said, the district has been discussing contingency plans in case of more dire shortages.

Other districts have tried to come up with creative solutions.

In addition to raising wages and adding other incentives to attract new bus drivers, Pittsburgh Public Schools and some area charter schools partnered with Port Authority to give some students free weekly city bus passes, eliminating the need for 38 different school bus routes.

Philadelphia schools are paying parents up to $3,000 for the year to drive their kids to school. PennDOT is also running additional classes to expedite the process of receiving a commercial license.

Some parents and community members online have suggested a return to expanded remote learning options, this time to ensure students still receive an education if transportation to school is not available.

Riley expressed frustration that her child has not been receiving information about what they missed in class on days that the bus didn’t arrive.

Nor has she received any advice on how to keep them up to speed, she said, adding that her child received disciplinary notices for not coming to school — despite being without transportation, and despite the district’s promise that students relying on canceled bus routes would be given excused absences.

According to media reports, many school bus drivers retired during the COVID-19 pandemic, or have not returned to work for fears of contracting COVID-19. Pupils under age 12 cannot yet receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

As the pandemic continues, so does the shortage. Pennsylvania officials are actively working to recruit bus drivers.

On Sept. 30, PennDOT announced the agency would be mailing recruitment materials to 375,000 Pennsylvania citizens who hold commercial driver’s licenses, encouraging them to apply for work as a school bus driver in an attempt to fill some of the empty spots and alleviate the issue.

East Allegheny’s Johnson said parents should be aware of the issue. “I think [the shortage] will be with us for some time,” he said.

Siana Emery is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh’s South Hilltop. She has also written for The Mennonite World Review, Goshen College Communications and Marketing and The Goshen College Record. She may be reached at sianaemery@gmail.com. Tube City Almanac Editor Jason Togyer contributed to this story.

Originally published October 18, 2021.

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