The return to Pittsburgh public school classrooms this week was successful, district officials said – but a looming shortage of bus drivers could threaten the district’s ability to attract more students.
A severe shortage of bus drivers means the neighborhood will not have enough open seats for everyone, as the number of students returning to buildings gradually increases this month. The district asks families with the possibility of finding alternative ways to send their children to school.
Pittsburgh Public Schools again welcomed 4,786 students this week into “Support Category 4,” which includes students deemed to have the greatest need for in-person instruction. Support Category 3 will return on April 26, and the rest of the students, in Support Categories 1 and 2, will be back in classrooms on May 3. The district uses a blended learning model, in which students attend school for two days and are distance learning for three.
District officials said the lack of available bus seats will become an issue on May 3, when more than 10,000 students return for face-to-face instruction. The largest school district in the area, Pittsburgh Public Schools had an enrollment of 20,000 as of October 2020. In a typical school year, however, the district transportation department is responsible for approximately 30,000 students in the area. total, including those of private and parish schools.
Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said some may not be able to return to class at all if they are unable to find alternative transportation. At present, he said, the district cannot guarantee that there will be enough bus seats for every student who has expressed the need.
“Unfortunately, it is a possibility,” he said. “We have people working diligently in the back to make sure that we can try to accommodate students and families as best as possible… but it is a possibility.”
Based on data collected in a recent survey of parents to assess transportation needs, Megan Patton, director of student transportation services, estimated that 1,200 spaces would be missing on May 3, a number that was not should only increase. The shortage will also affect the district’s ability to provide transportation to charter and parish schools.
“We encourage families to secure transportation,” Patton said. “We are also asking families to let the district know if they are not planning to use their seat, so that it can be turned over to a student in need of the seat.”
Already, the driver shortage is showing its effects: Patton said nine drivers took time off this week, creating a lack of coverage for 27 bus lines that the district quickly had to fill. Conversely, 20 routes this week were empty, with vacant ridership. The buses also operate at a reduced capacity of two students per seat, Patton said, due to covid-19.
The driver shortage was created when the district became completely remote last year, said Todd O’Shell, vice president of operations at ABC Transit, one of 20 bus carriers contracted with the district. When schools closed, many drivers left for more stable employment opportunities. Some had to stay at home with their own children, who were learning at home.
Over the past year, O’Shell said the bus company has seen a 41% reduction in requests, creating an additional challenge as ABC tries to fill empty slots.
In addition, even before the pandemic, school bus companies were reporting driver shortages, both locally and nationally.
The majority of high school students use public transport from the port authority to get to school, using public transport passes provided by the school district. But Patton said that too posed a challenge. With capacity restrictions due to the pandemic, the port authority sometimes skips stops when full, leaving students with no way to get to class on time.
Patton said PPS needs at least 200 drivers by May 3 to accommodate the number of students who use district transportation. At least 350 will be needed by the fall, when the district expects to return to a fully in-person learning model.
She said the district is looking for additional contractors in hopes of filling in the gaps. The district will prioritize the needs of students with specialized services and engage with community groups and local churches to find alternative transportation, Hamlet said.
O’Shell said ABC Transit is also rolling out a number of methods in hopes of attracting new drivers quickly. The company pays drivers over $ 21 an hour and pays for CDL courses, as well as a $ 1,000 bonus for people who receive their CDL license as part of the ABC training program. ABC Transit also offers a signing bonus of $ 2,500 and offers accommodations for drivers with children, including an earlier return to school for children of school bus drivers.
“What our drivers need, they need to feel safe,” said O’Shell, citing a litany of remediation methods currently being implemented by the carrier. “And… our riders are going to need a little patience as we move forward here with the start. They are going back to a first day of school for the first time in a year.
Hamlet and other district officials have asked parents to be flexible and find alternative transportation options, if possible.
“Understand the realities of this pandemic and where we are right now, how it affects transportation,” Hamlet said. “But thank goodness we have an online and remote system in place. … Education will continue as we strive to get children back to school, on transport, as best we can.