Children in Massachusetts are preparing to return to the classroom in person this year, but some districts are facing a shortage in bus drivers that has resulted in Governor Charlie Baker activating the National Guard to aid in school transportation.
“The Governor’s order makes up to 250 personnel available. Beginning with training on Tuesday, 90 Guard members will prepare for service in Chelsea, Lawrence, Lowell, and Lynn,” a Monday press release from the Governor’s office read.
Students and parents should not expect the traditional, big yellow school bus driving around for pick up and drop off anytime soon, however.
“These Guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans known as 7D vehicles to address staffing shortages in certain districts,” the release continued.
(Source: WBZ 4 CBS Boston)
All National Guard personnel participating will complete vehicle training and meet all statutory requirements to ensure the safety of children and families. The Guard will comply with all health and safety measures, according to the Governor’s office.
“Once it became pretty clear that there were going to be some communities shorthanded — it wasn’t going to be a vehicle issue, it was going to be people with CDLs — we started talking to the Guard,” Governor Charlie Baker told CBS Boston.
For parents, students, and teachers, the solution is a welcome relief to the glaring problem families without transportation faced in physically getting their children back in the classroom.
“It’s like we’ve worked so hard to get our kids finally to a place where they can come to school, now we’ve got to get them to school and on time. We want our kids in school so they can learn,” Chelsea School Superintendent Almi Abeyta said to CBS Boston.
Abetya added that she was “grateful and thankful that somebody was definitely thinking out of the box,” calling the plan an “interesting solution”.
The safe and reliable transportation to school each day is critical to our children’s safety and education.
Today, I activated up to 250 members of @TheNationsFirst to support and assist local communities in their school transportation efforts.
— Charlie Baker (@MassGovernor) September 13, 2021
One parent told CBS Boston that he hopes students will be safer in transit to and from school because the Guard is “more disciplined” than rushing bus drivers.
Each 7D vehicle can hold a maximum of 11 people including the driver under Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles regulations.
Boston Public Schools are among some communities that “weren’t interested” in accepting help from the National Guard at this time, but “left the door open to pursue it at some point later on,” The Lowell Sun reported.
This is despite the fact that Boston’s first day of school was postponed last week due to bus driver shortages, though acting Mayor Kim Janey assured parents that school transportation would be unaffected according to Fox News.
Thursday’s on-time rate for students arriving to school sat at just 57% — but the district insisted that was better than the five-year average for the first day of school, according to the Boston Herald.
Baker said the cost will be reimbursed by the federal government since it is a COVID-related issue; but the bus drivers’ union, United Steelworkers Local 8751, called the staffing shortage, which has been building since the spring, “the worst fiasco we’ve witnessed in our careers”.
The governor’s office assured citizens that the mission will not interfere with the Massachusetts National Guard’s ability to respond to and assist in emergencies within the Commonwealth.
“The Massachusetts National Guard trains regularly with military, law enforcement, and civilian agencies to provide a broad spectrum of services in support of security, logistics, disaster relief, and other missions. The Guard has a proven track record of success supporting civilian authorities. Their frequent side-by-side training with state and local first responders makes them well-suited for a variety of missions,” Baker’s statement concluded.
Some are calling on Massachusetts to incentivize drivers by paying them more:
Basically driving a school bus has to be a hobby job. It doesn’t pay enough to support a person and it keeps you from having another job. The people who do it are amazing but the fact that there aren’t enough of those people shouldn’t shock us.
— Kai Ellsworth (@kaiellsworthca) September 14, 2021
@MassGov pay school bus drivers a living wage and give them reasonable, trustworthy working hours, no funny stuff. You will get applicants. Bus drivers used to be school students with reg DLs who parked the bus at the family farm. Now it is considered a proper adult job. So pay.
— L. Divs (@mummacity) September 14, 2021
I know this is a radical idea to potentially solve this issue, but have they considering offering potential bus drivers better wages and benefits? Just saying…
— Wash your hands for the God Emperor brother! (@brianblackberry) September 14, 2021
Others claim that the workers who filled positions like bus drivers and crossing guards have dropped out of the workforce entirely since the pandemic began:
In Mass, many school bus drivers and crossing guards positions were filled by retired seniors. When schools were closed for a year, the seniors decided not to go back. Same for poll workers. Seniors have dropped out of the work force.
— Elaine Pantano (@ElainePantano) September 14, 2021
The school transportation debacle comes amid Boston’s preliminary mayoral elections that took place on Tuesday. Some of the candidates were vocal about concerns over the shortage of bus drivers.
All of the candidates are Democrats, and while the official results have yet to be announced, the Associated Press called Michelle Wu an unofficial winner around 3AM and candidate Annissa Essaibi George declared her own victory.
Election Day is Tuesday, November 2.
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