Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urging clear guidance for states and school districts on how they can use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to hire and retain school bus drivers.
ESSER funds included in the three COVID-19 recovery bills, the most recent being the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that was signed into law on March 11, provides states and school districts with federal funds that can be used to retain and hire bus drivers as well as other staff members. However, a press release issued by Gillibrand’s office, states that the DOE “has not provided specific guidance about this allowable use and thus, it is likely many school districts are unaware that they can use these funds to address the bus driver shortage.”
Currently, New York school districts are reporting an average bus driver shortage of 15 to 20 percent this school year. Many drivers have retired early, as opposed to wanting to risk getting sick. Other reasons for the shortage could be issues around vaccines and masking requirements which have led to drivers quitting and dissuaded potential applicants from applying to the job, the release adds.
“Following my staff’s outreach to your department, we were informed that during the review of ESSER state plans, costs related to keeping and hiring bus drivers have been determined to be allowable,” Gillibrand said in her letter to Cardona. “However, this is not an expense that is specifically called out in your Use of Funds FAQs.”
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The ARP Act of 2021 states that funds may be used for purposes such as hiring new staff and avoiding layoffs. Gillibrand noted that while some states have sent guidance to districts about how to spend the federal funds, she said she believes it would be beneficial to have clear guidance from the DOE to states and local education agencies (LEAs), letting them know that using the funds for school bus drivers has been approved by Congress. In addition to hiring and recruiting school bus drives, ensuring them adequate compensation is also an allowable use of the funds.
She added in the letter that it would also be helpful to make clear that LEAs can revise their previously submitted use of fund plans to state departments to use funds for this purpose.
“Across New York State and the country, families and schools are grappling with a school bus driver shortage that has made returning to normal even more difficult,” Gillibrand said. “The good news is that there are federal funds available to school districts to help them recruit and retain school bus drivers; unfortunately, there has not been clear guidance from the Department of Education on this allowable use. I am calling on the Department of Education to issue clear guidance letting states and school districts know that they can use this critical funding Congress has provided to address the school bus driver shortage and ease the burden on our schools and families.”