Hundreds of CT school bus drivers may walk out
School officials throughout the state will be holding their collective breath on Monday morning, fearing that opposition to mandatory vaccinations from hundreds of school bus drivers could leave kids waiting on street corners for rides that do not arrive.
At least 227 drivers may walk off the job in protest of Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order, exacerbating a statewide shortage of school bus operators.
Superintendents on Friday warned of late buses and drivers doubling their normal routes, while suggesting that parents consider bringing their kids to school. The state is attempting to cobble together contingency transportation, including the possible use of regional buses and
Mike Cummings, the superintendent of Fairfield Public Schools, said in a notice to parents that he does not know exactly how many drivers, or whom, will be absent Monday. Though the district is looking at alternative plans, he said there could be significant delays in transportation.
Cummings asked parents Friday to prepare backup transportation plans for their children Monday and potentially the rest of the week.
Seymour School Superintendent Susan Compton told parents and guardians that the local bus contractor lost drivers due to either changing jobs or failing to comply with the governor’s coronavirus protocols.
“Our lot, which consists of Ansonia, Derby, Beacon Falls and Seymour, lost a significant amount of drivers this week,” Compton wrote, stressing that district employees who have commercial drivers licenses will be assigned buses for the time being. The district’s bus provider, All-Star Transportation, has contracts with about 35 towns in the state.
“You may expect that there will be some days that your child’s bus is delayed,” Compton wrote. “We recognize that this is not an ideal situation, but it is the best that we can do given the current circumstances.”
Max Reiss, the communications director for Lamont, said Friday afternoon that state agencies are working together to qualify new drivers and provide additional transportation options for students, while the Department of Transportation is exploring the possibility of using some CT Transit and regional-service vehicles on a limited basis to fill gaps.
“We are also looking into providing resources for bus drivers across town lines,” Reiss said, stressing the public safety needs to have drivers inoculated against COVID.
“These people should be vaccinated,” Reiss said. “That’s what parents want.” He noted that most school bus companies have contracts to provide services to their various districts and are responsible for fulfilling their obligations.
The Connecticut School Transportation Association, which represents school bus drivers throughout the state, sent Acting Commissioner of Education Charlene Russell-Tucker a letter this week, warning her of a “major catastrophe looming on September 27.”
“The school bus driver shortage will become 10 times worse on that day, and it will be a crisis driven by government,” the association wrote.
The Connecticut School Transportation Association conducted a recent survey, finding that 1,558 school drivers in 12 school bus companies are unvaccinated and 227 “will walk out the door after work on Friday,” the letter stated.
The state’s Department of Education said it has identified eight transportation providers throughout the state with the potential to transport special education students to and from school. The department is also expediting requests for background checks, fingerprinting and training of potential new bus drivers.
The walk outs may not end there, though. The remaining 1,331 unvaccinated bus drivers agreed to testing only if it is free and convenient.
“Each week the school bus companies risk losing more drivers who find the testing mandate to be burdensome and inconvenient,” the Connecticut School Transportation Association wrote. “As they leave, it will take months to recruit, train and test new drivers, assuming we can find anyone interested in applying.”
But some cities don’t believe that a bus driver job action will disrupt their school transit systems.
After speaking to their bus company, Danbury schools do not expect to be affected by the walkout, said Kelly Watson, transportation coordinator for the district. The bus company, Student Transportation of America, has about 175 employees. Only about 30 are unvaccinated or have not turned in their vaccine cards yet, she said.
“Of those 30, everyone is willing to be tested weekly,” Watson said in an email. She added that the bus company feels “strongly that they will retain all the drivers and monitors in their staff.”
“Danbury has an amazing team of drivers and staff at STA and they are very dedicated to ensuring safe and reliable transportation to and from school,” she said.
New Haven school officials also do not expect a disruption.
Region 12 Superintendent Megan Bennett, who oversee schools in Bridgewater, Roxbury and Washington, also doesn’t anticipate problems on Monday. “We have been working closely with our bus company,” Bennett said Friday. “We are not anticipating drivers walking off the job at this time.”
Shelton Mark Lauretti said Friday afternoon that in his city, school bus drivers are municipal employees and he hasn’t required them to either get vaccinated or take weekly COVID tests.
“The city of Shelton owns our buses,” Lauretti said in a phone interview. He charged that Lamont’s mandate could make it even tougher for bus companies to retain drivers.
“Why is it okay for people to sit at MetLife stadium and watch a football game last Sunday without masks; to fill up the aisles at Big Y?” said Lauretti, a Republican up for reelection in November. “Why is it necessary, a year-and-ahalf into the pandemic, for our bus drivers to wear masks and have vaccinations? I am not telling them to do it.”