The National School Transportation Association asked U.S. senators to specifically name school bus drivers as eligible for a fourth proposed COVID-19 stimulus package that would provide premium pay for frontline workers.
Congressional Democrats introduced the proposed plan, “The Heroes Fund,” on April 7. It seeks to compensate the frontline workers for long hours spent in hazardous conditions. While the current language does not mention school bus drivers, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stated in a press release that he views transportation workers as essential employees, alongside doctors, nurses, emergency services, grocery store workers, and others who are central to fighting the virus.
Many in the student transportation industry would agree that school bus drivers normally should be viewed as first responders. But calls for the classification have intensified since these public school district and private company employees are now delivering meals and homework packets nationwide to students in need.
School buses are also being equipped with Wi-Fi routers, to be parked as hotspots in locations where families either cannot afford internet access or there is limited broadband coverage. School bus drivers and monitors remain with those buses to ensure student safety and that students adhere to social distancing guidelines.
In a letter addressed to Schumer as well as Sens. Gary Peters, Sherrod Brown, Patty Murray, Robert Casey and Tom Udall on Wednesday, NSTA wrote that “school bus drivers are performing amidst school closures to deliver necessary nutrition, supplies, and remote learning opportunities to students during the COVID-19 health crisis and once school resumes, will be providing students the safest way to and from school, as they have done for decades.”
NSTA added that the services being provided by school bus drivers have helped ease the anxieties of many parents, as their children will continue to get the nutritious meals despite school closures.
Bus drivers have already been identified as essential critical infrastructure workers in the latest version of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Advisory Memorandum, revised on Tuesday.
The “Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce: Ensuring Community and National Resilience in COVID-19 Response” states that transportation employees enabling transportation functions and distributing food are considered essential workers.
“School bus drivers are risking their health to ensure students still receive proper nutrition at least once a day,” NSTA added in its letter. “School bus drivers are essential frontline workers, and supplemental hazard pay is appropriate at this time.”
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If passed, the Hero Fund would provide a $25,000 premium pay increase, equivalent to a $13 an hour raise, for essential workers. It would be retroactive to the start of the public health emergency on Jan. 27 and remain in place through the end of this year.
The new plan would also provide a $15,000 essential worker recruitment incentive for health and home care workers and first responders to attract and secure the workforce needed during the pandemic. The $15,000 would be a one-time premium that employees would receive when signing up to do essential work.
At this writing, Education Week reported 28 states have closed in-person learning through the end of the school year. And while education is switching to an eLearning model, NSTA stated that these school closures have had a devastating impact on school bus contractors, as these private companies represent roughly 38 percent of the 26 million students being transported to and from school daily across the U.S.
NSTA noted that moving forward, school bus drivers will remain on the frontlines as they transport students again, once school resumes. The letter states that student transportation operations must remain adaptable during this time, and keep its drivers trained and available to work as well as buses maintained.
The association added that the industry is already suffering from a shortage of school bus drivers, and the pandemic could create an even greater shortage, once normal classes resume. The letter states that the Heroes Fund would assist school bus companies with recruitment and retention efforts.
“It is without a doubt that school bus drivers fit that mold,” NSTA said. “This fund would assist with elevating school bus drivers, which is an already under-recognized profession, for their efforts to put the needs of students first.”