A shortage of school bus drivers on the East End has forced the rescheduling of athletic competitions and isolated route delays — a microcosm of the nationwide driver shortage.
While the local shortage is not as severe as in some locations across the nation, athletic directors and other school officials are feeling the economic crunch.
“We’ve always … grappled with hiring and maintaining staff here,” said Adam Fine, superintendent of the East Hampton Union Free School District.
The district manages its own transportation department and hires drivers full time. Fine said the district was short three drivers.
“It does have a significant effect on, obviously, the running, the operations of the district,” he said. “We, like everybody else, are feeling the same thing with transportation. … The pool of drivers is not there.”
Montauk Bus, by far the area’s largest school bus company, is short an estimated 20 percent of drivers, according to the company’s attorney, Robert A. Macedonio. The transportation service operates over 400 buses for students as far west as the Patchogue-Medford Union Free School District.
“Every day is honestly a scramble,” Macedonio said.
He said Montauk Bus leaned on office staff and family members — with the proper licensing — to fill bus driving positions. The company has also experienced what Macedonio described as “slight delays” in pickup routes and more significant effects on after school athletics and late busing for extracurricular activities.
The Hampton Bays Public School District is one of the many districts that uses Montauk Bus for transportation. John Foster, the director of transportation and athletics for the district, said the shortage was forcing athletic games to be pushed later in the day and to weekends.
Foster said the district’s teams have yet to forfeit a competition, as other districts on Long Island have similarly experienced delays and service disruptions.
“The thing that makes it easier is that everyone is going through the same problem,” he said. “The thing that makes it difficult is that the fall is the busiest of all the sports seasons.”
Fine also said East Hampton teams were playing games on Sundays because of transportation issues, particularly when playing teams based in western Suffolk where traffic and transit times add up.
“We’ve never done that — that’s not been a practice of ours. We don’t like to keep the district open on Sundays,” he said. “But we feel, you know, to present opportunities for kids, we have to do that.”
The driver shortage is being felt nationwide, as drivers grapple with unsafe working conditions — being around children who are too young to receive a COVID-19 vaccination — low pay and poor benefits. Similar conditions are affecting labor markets for substitute teachers and cafeteria workers.
In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker deployed up to 250 members of the state’s National Guard in September to fill bus driving roles.
Governor Kathy Hochul announced an initiative to train, license and recruit drivers in September. New York State officials have encouraged districts and bus companies to expand benefits and signing bonuses for drivers.
“While the shortage of school bus drivers is not unique to New York State, I have directed state agencies to utilize creative approaches and use every tool at their disposal to help districts affected by the bus driver shortage, so we can bring in as many qualified bus drivers as possible as quickly as possible,” Hochul said in a September 19 press release.
Accordingly, area bus companies have started offering stronger pay and work benefits to recruit and retain staff.
Macedonio said Montauk Bus is offering attendance bonuses to drivers, free training to recruits and higher salaries to current employees and recruits — he declined to offer a dollar value or percentage. He said the company has also plastered three buses in advertising materials and planted lawn signs to recruit drivers.
In East Hampton, Fine noted his district already offers a competitive salary and benefit package as they hire drivers full time. He said East Hampton was exploring if the district could fill bus driving roles with current substitute teacher and custodial staff. He also said the district was considering providing free training for potential drivers.
Some parents have felt the impact of the route delays.
Daniela Weiss-Bronstein said her child’s bus pickup time was changed multiple times. Now, to avoid missing the bus, she stands outside with her elementary student 20 minutes before his pickup time.
“I’m just not sure what happens to the school day, when he’s first picked up at 8:30 — I believe the school actually starts at 8:30,” she said.
Her child is in Westhampton’s special education program, and overall she noted she has had very positive experiences with Montauk Bus.
“If it were so hugely impactful and I needed him out before 8:30, I would simply drive him to school myself — but I think that there’s a learning and social benefit for him in getting on the bus by himself, walking away from me, being with everyone else, having to follow their rules,” she said. “There’s such a benefit, even in the relationships that he has developed with the drivers and the aides that he has had.”
Southampton Union Free School District Superintendent Nicholas Dyno and transportation director Samantha Saw did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Sag Harbor Union Free School District Superintendent Jeff Nichols could not be reached for comment. Both districts run their own transportation services.