CHELSEA, Ma. — An unexpected group is stepping onto the front lines to make sure kids get to school.It's the result of a school bus driver shortage impacting districts across the country.
In several states, the crisis has become severe enough to call in the National Guard. But calling in the Guard doesn’t fix the issue overnight.
“We had a shortage with bus drivers to begin with, and COVID just compounded that shortage,” said the superintendent of Chelsea Schools in Massachusetts, Almi Abeyta.
Her district was desperate for a frontline worker she could not get.
“It's not an easy job, and another thing is it's a part-time job,” said Abeyta. “Many of our bus drivers were already at retirement age and maybe with COVID, they just said, ‘You know what, we're going to retire now.’”
With no way to quickly hire dozens of drivers, the National Guard was able to send in 250 members to different districts in and around Boston. This group was no stranger to Chelsea, especially since the pandemic hit.
“At the beginning of this pandemic, National Guard came into Chelsea to do food distribution to our residents because we were the hardest-hit city,” said Abeyta. “They also came in during when the vaccinations first came out.”
Bus driver wasn’t a role she thought she’d see the Guard take on, but Abeyta said she is grateful these men and women are there.
She is watching as other school districts around the country, also in the midst of this crisis, debate following suit. Ohio’s governor called in the National Guard to drive their students to school as well.
Nationwide, half of all students, about 25 million kids, need to take the bus to school. Yet, 81% of school districts across the county reported they were short of the number of drivers they needed at the beginning of this school year.
In Texas, sports coaches have been asked to drive students to school in the mornings.
In Pennsylvania, some districts are paying families $300 per month to opt out of bus pickups.
“Everyone’s looking for drivers right now,” said John McCarthy, the CEO of NRT bus, a transportation company responsible for taking 125,000 Massachusetts kids to school.
For the first time in his career, McCarthy hired recruiters to find drivers.
“School bus drivers don’t grow on trees, so we’re doing our best to train and get folks behind the wheel,” he said.
In the meantime, he trained the National Guard members to operate small transit vans in a matter of days. Certifying the Guard to drive the big yellow school buses would’ve taken longer, so they chose smaller vehicles to help get the drivers to schools as quickly as possible.
“It’s actually been a smooth operation,” said McCarthy. “We were impressed with the eagerness of the Guard. They do all kinds of things to help out folks like us, anywhere from protecting our freedom now to driving our children, so it’s a pretty special detail.”
The National Guard is helping some pretty special students, like 11-year-old Evan Mitchell, who needs some extra help getting to school.
“He's autistic, and he has problems walking, so his feet are fixed. So, walking is an issue for him. Even though the school is not far, walking is hard for him,” said Evan’s mom, Jennifer Mitchell.
Evan’s parents both work. His mom works overnights. The driver shortage made school days incredibly stressful.
“I appreciate the bus drivers. I mean, I'm a frontline worker myself, so I know it's not easy being around people, being exposed. But, it's a job. It has to get done, and these kids need to get to school,” Mitchell said.
Before the National Guard stepped in, students were getting to school after the school day started. Now with the extra hands behind the wheel, students are getting to school early.
“He’s happier. He likes the small vans better,” said Mitchell. “I'm just glad everything's somewhat normal for now.”
These special frontline workers won’t stay to help the entire school year, but support for now is a welcome help.
“They are essential to our schools,” said Abeyta. And, they’re giving students the chance to focus on what’s most important: their education.
“It’s the future of America,” said McCarthy. “The folks the National Guard are transporting are definitely the future of America.”