With schools reopening in about a month, bus companies that have provided transportation to Valley schools are scrambling to hire new drivers and train their staff to follow CDC and district protocols to keep students and drivers — many of whom are older — safe during the pandemic.
Rohrer Bus provides transportation services to students in the Lewisburg, Selinsgrove and Mifflinburg school districts, and for CSIU, in Montandon.
Rohrer Bus Service Vice President David Schrantz said on Wednesday that "it is more difficult right now to find any employee. It's a combination of two things. Apprehension about the virus, certainly. But I believe the main reason is the unemployment benefits that are available right now."
"In an industry that needs to do consistent hiring, like us, where there is turnover, and where the wage is hourly," he said, "we're not seeing people who need jobs right now. If you've been laid off from a previous employer, the enhanced benefits put you in a better position to keep collecting that benefit as opposed to looking for a job. We'll see if that changes as the enhanced benefits expire."
Schrantz said they are getting applications, but not at the volume needed.
"I'm optimistic that some of our past drivers will return this year," he said. "But some won't because they have health concerns, or their wife might have health concerns. The reality is, statewide, the demographics of school bus drivers point toward older drivers. Our work might be a quasi-retirement job, supplementing their income."
Finding enough drivers has been an ongoing issue that seems to go in waves, said Philip J. Adam, operations manager for Weikel Busing, which services some routes in the Selinsgrove Area School District.
Like Schrantz, Adam believes there is a nationwide driver shortage due to many factors prior to the pandemic and some additional ones due to the pandemic.
"Hiring drivers is an ongoing process and we will never say we have enough drivers," Adam said. "We are proud to say our family of drivers has really taken care of themselves when they see an opportunity to tell someone they should drive bus, they jump on it. Many folks who come to us to drive know someone who works here and they referred them. We work hard to support our drivers and continue to work as a family."
What school districts expect
Derrek Fink, business administrator for Milton Area School District, said on Wednesday that they expect the contracted bus company to follow "our health and safety plan.
"We do expect the buses to be completely sanitized after the a.m. run," Fink said on Wednesday. "And then after the p.m. run, fully sanitized as well. We are providing hand sanitizers and masks for everyone boarding and exiting the vehicle.
"Every bus will have that available for students and drivers," he said. "We are also keeping the seat directly behind the driver free of any students to create some additional distancing, to help protect the driver. We are also asking that the bus ventilate as much as feasible, keeping windows open — weather permitting — to improve airflow throughout the vehicle."
"Our focus, from the district's point of view," Fink said, "will be on masking, sanitization and maintaining order in the bus, since keeping to 6-feet social distancing will be difficult to accomplish."
Once training starts, bus companies will adhere to CDC protocols.
"We are required to do classroom training so we practice social distance in our in-person classrooms," Schrantz said. "Luckily, we have large enough spaces for social distancing. We also do in-bus training and there we also practice social distancing."
Some changes are inevitable, he said. "There will be reduced ridership on buses. Masks will be used by students and by our drivers, as long as it is safe. A driver who wears glasses and a mask, the glasses could fog up, so that driver will not be asked to wear a mask while on a route. We will keep the first row of seats empty. Frequent cleaning. Spot cleaning of commonly touched areas.
Rohrer drivers will be monitoring their own health, Schrantz said.
Milton Area School District's bus contractor is Gwen and Bill Hackenberg, co-owners of Hackenberg Buses.
On Thursday morning, Gwen was busy cleaning and sanitizing buses, "so we'll be ready to roll," she said.
"We intend to follow the health and safety plan passed by the Milton School Board on Tuesday," she said, "but what we're really waiting for are the results of the surveys sent out to families that will let us know how many students we'll be carrying. Then we can draw up the routes. We're preparing for full buses but understand that this probably won't be the case. Things are changing all the time."
The Hackenbergs will have masks and gloves available for drivers if they cannot get their own.
"Every driver has their own comfort level," Gwen said. "I'll have things available. If people need them, they are welcome to them. Some drivers might feel more comfortable with the face shield."
Hackenberg will also spray down the bus after every run, she said.
"Safety has always been our top priority," said Adam. "We transport the world's most precious cargo. With COVID, we just have had to add some additional safety measures to our daily routine."
Each district continues to work on developing plans for safe transportation "that we plan on implementing in the coming weeks," he said.
"Company-wide, we will be working with the drivers at each district's driver's meeting to cover additional cleaning procedures that meet the CDC guidelines for daily sanitizing of the buses, and proper use of PPE," Adam explained. "All buses will be sanitized after each use with a cleaner we selected from the CDC's list of COVID approved cleaning solutions. Some of our routes and summer camps have started back along with private charters and weddings so many of the drivers have begun to get into the cleaning routine already and will be pros at caring for the buses by the time school starts."
One other thing the public should know, Schrantz said, is "people have no idea how often bus drivers show up when they are not feeling well.
"Now, if they are symptomatic," he said, "they might have to call their supervisor and say they can't come in, 'can you find a spare driver?' The unfortunate thing is we don't have that many drivers, so without the ability to hire more people it poses a logistical problem where there could be delays. It is our hope that the district could communicate that quickly to parents so that they understand the boss might be 30 minutes late, as we need to find a substitute driver.
"Those challenges will arise," he said. "We'll continue to try to hire as many people as we can."