Since the coronavirus took its grip, many school bus drivers have been getting paid, and are working to deliver meals as well as information packets. But some school bus drivers have not been getting paid.
While that could be changing soon, no pay has caused hardship and anxiety in towns like Watertown, Connecticut, and Freeport on New York’s Long Island, where school buses are operated by contractors. According to a School Transportation News web poll, approximately 38 percent of over 700 readers said school bus drivers at their school district or bus companies were not getting paid.
COVID-19 relief under the $2.2 trillion CARES Act included a $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund, whereby federal aid will be distributed to states, with each state receiving a calculated amount. Each state governor will then distribute the funds. The CARES Act did stipulate that schools and contractors, to include pupil transporters and drivers, would be covered.
This could be part of the “beginning of the end,” as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo described the downside of flattening the coronavirus curve in his daily press briefings. Federal relief could mean that school bus contractors and their drivers will get paid. But New York state has many needs and is commonly called “the epicenter” of the COVID-19 pandemic. It might also be the epicenter of school bus drivers not getting paid.
In fact, about half of school bus drivers in New York state have not been getting paid during the pandemic, according to Nichole Epstein, a spokesperson for the New York School Bus Contractors Association (NYSBCA).
“The lack of payment drastically jeopardizes the resumption of transportation services for many New York school districts, which is very alarming because pupil transportation is an essential government service that needs to be ready to respond at a moment’s notice to when school resumes again, whenever that may be,” she added. “This is only possible if the contractors are paid by the school districts because then the contractors will be able to pay their employees, which is all they want to do.”
Calls for help came from NYSBCA, as well as the many unions who represent school bus drivers and workers, have been vociferous, and worked with federal, state and local representatives, about the need for school transportation contractors and their workers to stay funded and allow them to continue to receive not only a paycheck but also health insurance benefits which many rely on.
Funding In the Hands of Governors
Many governors are using executive orders to ensure school contractors and their drivers get paid. Epstein said that New York should follow the lead of other states such as Connecticut, which adopted executive order 7R, requiring school districts to negotiate amendments to contracts with student transportation providers with the goal of “sustaining continuity of service … to make payments to transportation providers so that they may compensate their active employees and provide them health insurance.”
“These payments include home-to-school costs, such as employees’ salaries, including, but not limited to, owners, managers, IT Staff and mechanics, and drivers’ pay, as well as other costs including rent, administrative costs and reasonable fleet costs, maintenance, and insurance while taking into account potential savings such as fuel,” Epstein explained.
She noted that similar measures were taken in New Mexico, where Gov. Lujan Grisham ordered that all school personnel, including bus contractor employees, “be ready, willing and able to conduct business and has therefore directed districts, charter schools and bus contractors to continue paying transportation staff.”
“Although to-and-from bus services are not being provided, the governor expects that parties work collaboratively to determine how to most effectively utilize paid staff during the closure,” said Epstein.
She commented that New Jersey also introduced legislation requiring school districts that have closed its schools for longer than three days due to health-related reasons to continue to make payments for employee benefits and compensation, pursuant to the terms of a contract with a contracted service provider. The law also allows contractors to meet the payroll and fixed costs obligations of the contracted service provider.
Realigning Policies While Repurposing Buses and Their Drivers
Other states around the country are paying school bus drivers but they are changing policies in response to COVID-19. In fact, some are using this time to prepare buses and drivers for the next school year, whenever that may start. In the meantime, many are putting their drivers to work in unconventional ways.
Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle shared how the commonwealth agency is updating policies for its school buses and drivers. For example, Virginia is working on a legislative adjustment to expiring school bus driver physicals by at least 90 days, to a maximum of Jan. 1, 2021.
In addition, other schools in Virginia would ordinarily be training new drivers during the coming summer months. The state is providing virtual solutions to keep pace with the need to fill their pipeline with drivers, in anticipation of a school year startup on or about Sept. 1.
“Virginia Department of Education certifies and recertifies school division school bus driver trainers,” said Pyle. “We have already moved recertification to a webinar platform and are working to move the certification training to a webinar platform for our summer training period. At this time, webinar training will not only be safer than a classroom setting but also be less costly [than] travel costs and hotel for school divisions, as budgets may be strained due to the virus.”
In addition, school closures at the order of Gov. Ralph Northam are being treated as an extended summer break. Buses are no longer required to be serviced every 45 school days.
However, the required maintenance will be performed before the start of the 2020-2021 school year. And the state has approved off-site food delivery for students. Many school divisions are delivering food in school buses along their normal routes.
Within other Virginia districts, the individual schools decide if drivers would be used to deliver meals.
“Some schools considered using buses and drivers to deliver free lunches. Contracted drivers and bus attendants continue to be paid,” said Robert Clinebell, director of transportation for Norfolk Public Schools. “We are constantly brainstorming more ways to meet our communities’ needs.”
Bus drivers who work for Suffolk Public Schools are also being paid.
“Suffolk Public Schools has also decided to use our school buses to deliver free meals to our students during the extended school closure,” said district spokeswoman Anthonette Ward. “Weekly meal distribution began on March 17. We have also used our buses to deliver instructional work packets to our elementary level students.
“We are a school division, and the last thing that we want is to put students in our community in harm’s way,” Ward continued. “By using our buses and drivers, we are still able to provide necessary resources during this time.”
On average, the district is distributing over 2,500 meals daily. “This is an example of the teamwork that we see each and every day in Suffolk Public Schools,” she added.
Will the Hardship Continue?
Like so many aspects of COVID-19 and its communal effects, the fate of school bus driver pay—in the short term, and in the long term—is uncertain. But things are looking up. Schools in New York as well as in many other states are dependent on aid from state and local budgets. But so many of those budgets have been gutted and depleted to manage the lockdown during the pandemic. They need relief and they need it now. They should get it. Until they do, mechanics, drivers, contractors and the many who help keep schools running feel some hardship in some way.
“It’s a hardship on any bus driver right now,” said Susan Rodriquez, in a television news interview during the early stages of the pandemic. For the past 25 years, she has been a school bus driver for the Baumann Bus Company, a contracted firm that provides transportation services for the Freeport Schools on Long Island. “I do take it personally because I’m a resident. My children went to this school district. And then to find out that we’re not getting paid by the school district, it does hurt.”