With a shortage of bus drivers being made worse by flu season, one Vermont school superintendent is going after his commercial driver’s license.
Michael Leichliter, superintendent of schools at Harwood Unified Union School District, said on Thursday he’s not the only administrator to have sought a CDL so he can lend a hand (and right foot) to the busing effort, though he might be one of the latest.
Harwood is one of many districts that’s had to manage a shallow bus driver roster. Leichliter, who has been on the job since July 1 after having been a superintendent in eastern Pennsylvania for 13 years, said post-pandemic staffing shortages aren’t a local problem — though it is to locals who schools are looking for solutions, he said.
In addition to doing what it can to find people in the community willing to be bus drivers, or at least substitute bus drivers, Harwood and other Vermont school districts have asked administrators and, in some cases, coaches for help.
Leichliter said it will be a little while before he can obtain a CDL, and he plans to serve as a substitute when and where it’s needed.
“Back in the fall, sometime around October, we had to consolidate routes because we lost a bus driver and had no backup,” said Leichliter. “We had no other route drivers, we had no substitutes, so we combined one of our towns, Moretown’s three routes into two routes, until we got another driver.”
They did find a driver in early November, but just last week found themselves down another one and had to work out different routes.
The Harwood school district uses the First Student busing company. Leichliter said the company has been great to work with, and its recruiting efforts have involved sign-on bonuses and the like in an effort to entice new drivers. “I’m also hoping we can get more people in our community interested in at least being a substitute,” he said.
For some school districts, they have what they need for now, but that’s it.
“Right now, we’re fully staffed for our bus routes, but if somebody calls in sick or anything goes on, we’re right on the edge,” said Chris Hennessey, superintendent of schools for the Barre Unified Union School District which uses Student Transportation of America for its bus service. “As far as I understand, we’re OK, but all it will take is two people to be done, and we’re in a pickle,” said Hennessey. “It’s been very, very challenging. I understand some districts are dealing with it worse than us.”
The only real short-term strategy, he said, is to do what Harwood was forced to do: combine bus routes. This means some students will see slight delays in getting to and from school. So far, no student has missed a day because of this, he said.
The school district is doing what it can to boost Student Transportation’s recruiting efforts, but there’s only so much that can be done on that front. “[It] really comes down to the availability of people willing and able to do the job,” Hennessey said.
On Tuesday, Slate Valley Unified School District notified its community via its Facebook page that it might have to cancel bus runs if too many drivers are out sick. “We’ve just had quite a few drivers out due to illness, flu, COVID, RSV, those types of illnesses,” said Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell. “Same with our staff in the schools but we just don’t have substitutes for anything.”
“We typically have 16 [drivers] for the regular routes during the day but we were down three right now,” she said. “There was one Castleton-Hubbardton route, and one Fair Haven route, that we had to cancel. And we also had another route that was going to Manchester for specialized placements that we’ve been struggling to fill, too.”
Right now, the school district has enough drivers to cover the basics, but the roster of substitutes is at zero, she said. “At some point, if it gets too bad, we’re not going to be able to sustain that, but right now we’re making it work,” she said.
This story was published originally in the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. Reach Keith Whitcomb at keith.whitcomb @rutlandherald.com