Bus driver shortage: Toms River forced to postpone sports matches

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TOMS RIVER, NJ – The Toms River Regional School Board approved the hiring of five bus drivers for the 2021-22 school year on Wednesday evening.

He also accepted the retirement of one driver and the resignation of two others.

It has been so for months, said William Doering, district affairs administrator, and Laurel Venberg, district transportation manager.

“It’s like we win one and lose two,” said Venberg, who was promoted to manager in July following the retirement of Margaret Donnelly, longtime district transportation manager. “We asked someone to submit their papers the other day.”

The district currently lacks 50 bus drivers, Venberg said. They have 32 contract positions that are unfilled, and she needs 20 more drivers on the replacement list, ready to replace drivers taking paid vacation, who are on medical leave or, now, those who need to be put on. quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure.

All retirements and resignations have had a domino effect, and the most recent domino to fall is extracurricular sports. The lack of available buses is forcing the district to reschedule games, mainly at the junior and freshman levels, district officials said.

“We don’t have buses available until 4 pm,” said Ted Gillen, athletic coordinator for Toms River regional schools. This means away games start later, with the potential to run out of daylight. Some districts have let students leave class earlier to adjust to sports, Gillen said, and others have rescheduled games as well.

The district has tried to hire private bus companies to meet some of the needs, but private companies, which also face a shortage of drivers, have refused to bid on bus rides, the acting superintendent said. Stephen Genco.

Schools in Toms River have tried to find alternative solutions, including asking parents to drive their children to games, but this only helps where parents are available to do so. However, having the students drive themselves is not an option.

“We can’t let 17-year-olds drive on the promenade,” Genco said.

The shortage of school bus drivers is affecting districts in New Jersey and across the country. In Glassboro, the school district changed layoff times at two of its schools after it was cut short due to the resignation of eight drivers just before the start of the school year. Woodbridge and Edison School Districts have cut routes, meaning there are more children on each bus, extending commute times and reducing social distancing.

The shortage is so acute in Massachusetts that the National Guard has been activated to help drive school buses, and in Philadelphia, the school district is offering parents $ 300 a month to drive their children to school.

In the 2019-20 school year, the Toms River bus lines had drivers assigned to bus trips to high school and then as shuttles, Venberg said. “We had 30 buses that would help with sports,” she said.

The shortage of drivers in Toms River has led the district to adjust the start times of five schools, consolidate bus routes and align them to maximize efficiency. This means that each driver has bus routes throughout the day and there are no drivers for the shuttles or for the sports until the last primary school trips are completed. She has a replacement driver.

“I have two office staff who drive buses,” due to drivers who are in COVID-19 quarantine, Venberg said.

Toms River currently has 24 people who have applied to drive for the school district, including three who have commercial driver’s licenses but do not have state approvals to drive passengers and school buses, Venberg said.

Trying to get them through the state clearance process has been a challenge, she said. The fingerprinting process alone takes three weeks, and getting responses from the MVC to emails takes up to a week, as these employees still work from home part of the week, Venberg said.

Another part of the problem is getting a commercial driver’s license and approving school buses has become more difficult over the years, Venberg said.

“Previously, they only had a school bus driver’s license,” said Venberg, who drove for a private bus company for a dozen years before joining the Toms River school district there. 17 years.

The requirement for a CDL, which is a federal license, means that school bus drivers must know all parts of the engine.

“A school bus driver doesn’t need to know how to fix an engine,” Venberg said. “That’s why we have bus mechanics.”

“We threw so many obstacles in our way,” said Evie Wills, administrator of the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association, an organization of private school bus companies.

Laws passed in the wake of the fatal Route 80 school bus crash in 2018 that killed an elementary school student and teacher drove people into their bus keys, she said. Among the new rules is the requirement that school bus drivers aged 75 or over undergo a medical examination certified by the Federal Ministry of Transport every three months, to prove that they are fit to drive.

“Transportation managers have told me they are losing their best drivers,” because of this rule, Wills said.

To be certified to drive a school bus, you must have a valid New Jersey driver’s license, be at least 21 years old, and have had a clean driving record for at least three years. You must pass a U.S. Department of Transportation physical exam – which must be performed by a certified doctor to perform these physical exams – and a drug test, criminal background check, and your fingerprints.

After that there is a written exam and a road test to obtain the license with the endorsements for passengers and school buses. It’s a complex process, Wills and Venberg said.

William Connolly, spokesperson for the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, said the state has taken steps to make the CDL process more efficient for those looking to drive school buses.

“Most school bus driver candidates are now tested through a streamlined planning process coordinated with the school bus industry and school districts, allowing CDL candidates to complete multiple steps in a single visit,” he said. he declared.

“We are in regular contact with school districts and commercial driving schools. When either identifies a candidate school bus driver, we offer testing and accreditation through this fast-track bulk process. Our goal is to move all school bus drivers to a priority schedule and out of our regular scheduling platform. “

The aim is to get “tested and properly accredited drivers behind the wheel of school buses as quickly and safely as possible,” he said.

Wills said what the state has done is allow people who wish to become school bus drivers to make an appointment with the MVC to have their documents approved, take the written exam and schedule their road test. in one trip – instead of having made three separate trips to accomplish these tasks. And once the potential driver has made an online appointment, private companies can contact the state to move that appointment forward.

She said the accommodations came after private bus companies contacted the state and warned them of the crisis the state is now facing with the shortage of drivers.

Although Connolly said the state VMC made this available to school districts as well, it was not clear if or to what extent this had been communicated to districts. Venberg said applicants to Toms River schools must book their appointments online, but did not mention any part of the process, including fast-track driving tests.

Venberg said not all people who apply to become a school bus driver are suitable for the job. There was one candidate who was released during training due to continued delays on bus trips – the result of stopping to chat with people, she said.

“If the driver was late during the training process, what if no one was there to watch him? ” she said.

For some, however, bureaucracy is the only obstacle keeping them away from the driver’s seat.

Steve Padula of Berkeley Township has been approved as a Toms River Schools Bus Driver. Padula holds a commercial driver’s license and has spent over 40 years driving trucks. He wants to get away from the toll that long distance trucking takes with long days on the road away from home.

“I have my physique, I took my fingerprints,” he said. The only thing holding him back? The written test for the school bus rider.

“I missed one question too many,” he said. He tried to schedule a new test, and the documentation gives a deadline for doing so, but trying to get an appointment in the Toms River MVC office was frustrating.

“The first one available was in mid-November,” said Padula. The only other options were to drive more than an hour to take the test. “It’s ridiculous because all the other computers in Toms River are sitting there wide open.”

“I have nothing on my license,” said Padula. “No DOT violation. No motor vehicle violation.”

“There has to be a better way,” he said.

As Venberg continues to try to find drivers and guide them through the licensing process, Gillen must continue to try to find solutions for transporting athletes. He acknowledged a parent’s complaint about communicating about the issues at Wednesday’s school board meeting and vowed to improve communication.

The solutions are not easy to find. Gillen said the possibilities are being discussed, but few are immediate answers to an issue that will only get worse as all sports hit the full season. Fall is the busiest, with football, men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey, women’s volleyball, cross country, women’s tennis and gymnastics.

But finding solutions will become more critical as the winter season approaches, with the potential for reckless driving.

Gillen hopes the district will be able to have more drivers in the bus seats by then, to give the district more options.

“We are always looking for creative solutions,” said Gillen. “When you don’t have people who can drive (the buses), how can you be creative? “

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