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N.H. School Bus Driver Shortage Could Mean Longer Routes, Crowded Buses this Fall

Cleaning school bus
Sarah Gibson
Sandra Rowe, of the Student Transportation Association, disinfects a school bus in Bow, New Hampshire.

Bus companies say the school driver shortage, long a problem, is now a 'crisis' for districts across New Hampshire.

School bus companies in New Hampshire say they're facing a driver shortage unlike anything they've seen before.

Many drivers stopped working at the beginning of the pandemic, citing health concerns and the need to take care of kids in remote school. And many of them aren’t coming back. Bow has a 40 percent vacancy rate for drivers, and it's already affecting summer school.

Robin O'Dougherty, a Bow driver for 25 years, says fewer bus drivers during summer school means more crowded buses and longer bus routes. He said some of his students are on the bus for twice as long as normal.

“Some of our districts are down fifty percent or more of their drivers,” said Karen Holden, vice president of the New Hampshire School Transportation Association. “And that's going to impact getting students to school this coming school year.”

But the shortage isn't a new problem. School bus companies have long faced a dearth of drivers. Last year, some increased the hourly wage and added bonuses to boost recruitment. The hourly rate is typically between $16-22, with some companies offering signing bonuses up to $4,000.

“For some of our students, the [driver] is the first employee they see in the year and the last employee they see in the year, and that relationship the bus driver can form with that student is critical to our success,” said Bow Superintendent Dean Cascadden at a press conference on Wednesday with the New Hampshire School Transportation Association and Department of Education.

School districts are required legally to provide transportation to some students with disabilities and all students in kindergarten through eighth grade who live more than two miles from school. If they don’t have enough bus drivers, Cascadden says districts will have to reconsider providing free transportation to high schoolers and sports teams.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut urges people to apply for bus driver jobs to address the statewide bus driver shortage.
Sarah Gibson
Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut urges people to apply for bus driver jobs to address the statewide bus driver shortage.

“You start running into a real equity issue of children who are less affluent not being able to get to school or participate in all activities,” he says.

Robin O'Dougherty has called former colleagues asking them to come back. He’s explained COVID-19 sanitation procedures, but some still have health concerns about driving a crowded bus with children who are mostly unvaccinated for COVID-19.

“You know we're in a really small, condensed atmosphere,” he says, “And that's what gets them.”

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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