Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania announced on Thursday that all public K-12 schools are to remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic school year, however, legislation passed last month calls on school districts to continue paying their school bus contractors.
As of this writing, Education Week reported 15 other states in addition to Pennsylvania have closed their buildings for in-classroom learning for the remainder of the school year, and many have switched to an online-based distance learning model. Meanwhile, 19 states have recommended closure.
When school buildings shutter, many wonder the fate of transportation operations, and whether transportation employees and private contractors will continue to be paid during the crisis. School bus contractors reportedly make up a majority of school bus operations in the state.
On March 27, the state legislature passed SB 751, which outlines a plan for school districts during the pandemic. The legislation states “that each school entity may renegotiate a contract for school bus transportation services to ensure contracted personnel and fixed costs, including administrative and equipment, are maintained during the period of school closure.”
The law stipulates that the school bus contractors are required to submit weekly documentation to school districts to ensure its complement levels remain at or above the levels that were in place on March 13, in order to continue being paid.
If school districts continue to pay their contractors or they operate their own school bus transportation operations, they may be eligible for reimbursement from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, at a rate the school district would have received if the pandemic had not occurred.
However, several school districts in the state have ceased all operations, and they are not delivering meals or instructional materials, as some schools are around the nation are. Instead, these Pennsylvania school districts are waiting for Gov. Tom Wolf to lift a “Stay at the Home” order that is effective until April 30, before they return to work.
In a blog post on Linkedin Thursday, Mark Ramiljak, the chief operating officer for Krapf Bus Companies that operates in Pennsylvania as well as in Delaware, New Jersey and New York state, writes school districts that don’t pay leave their contractors without resources to pay their employees during school closures, an especially perilous situation amid the ongoing bus driver shortage.
“If private school bus contractors survive the business impact of this pandemic crisis, there must be a way to preserve the workforce in the student transportation industry,” Ramiljak adds. “The state legislatures and their governors need to work with their state department of education and approve the payment of their student transportation contracts with their partners, the private school bus contractor.”
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All school bus drivers and transportation staff at Pocono Mountain School District, near the Northwest border with New York, will continue to be paid their 180 contractual school days. The staff is all at home and not working, but Barbara Bhufnagel, a dispatcher for the district, said staff is being paid their usual hours.
Meanwhile, transportation staff at Palmerton Area School District, located 82 miles north of Philadelphia, is currently collecting unemployment during the “Stay at Home” period. Transportation Manager Danielle George said full-time staff will return to normal working hours to prepare for the upcoming school year as soon as the governor says it’s safe to continue operations.
George said some school bus drivers will come back prior to the next school year, if summer work is available, but a majority of them will collect unemployment through the summer until the 2020-2021 school year begins.
“We may lose some drivers due to possibly retiring, but I doubt we will lose drivers to finding other jobs. The drivers we have like their jobs and the hours of driving buses,” George said.
George added that it remains to be determined how the district will address transportation employees who receive health insurance, as they will not be paid and therefore a portion of their paycheck won’t be going towards those expenses.
“Anything is possible though, I would’ve never predicted something like this pandemic in my lifetime,” George said.