Some Connecticut students are facing longer bus rides and combined routes this year as bus companies continue to contend with a driver shortage.
"It is definitely having an impact. We are all struggling," said Jon Hipsher, chief operating officer of M&J Bus Inc. "Routes are having to be consolidated and it is frustrating moms and dads, for sure. The driver shortage has gotten worse."
Hipsher is also vice president on the board of directors for the Connecticut School Transportation Association. He said that the bus driver shortage has reached a critical level and is affecting students statewide.
"All of us are doing some kind of increase in our wages, some hiring bonuses- things like that," said Hipsher.
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While hiring and recruiting is the focus for the short-term, Hipsher said school bus companies believe this problem needs a long-term solution. He said that the requirements to become a school bus driver need to be streamlined.
According to Hipsher, it can take 8-12 weeks to become certified to drive and that process includes some training that the drivers don't use on the job. He would like to see an industry specific licensing process.
"That needs to be streamlined substantially. That's what has really been driving this school bus shortage for many, many years now and the pandemic has only made it worse," said Hipsher.
Colchester Public Schools contracts with M&J Bus. The superintendent said they have tried to help recruit by emailing all of their families.
"The bottom line is people are just not signing up, but also the complicating factor is if they do have somebody who is interested- it is 8 to 12 weeks to get certified. We are talking end of the year we might get somebody," said Jeffrey Burt, superintendent of Colchester Public Schools.
Colchester students have been back in school for a little more than a week and Burt said they have had continuing bus problems.
"We have to combine runs in some cases both morning and afternoon and in some cases, the runs are over 60 minutes which we do not want to have," said Burt. "It is just an ongoing issue and, I'll speak for my colleagues, this is a statewide issue and it is urgent. It is verging on critical and we need help."
Melissa Cote is a mom of two Colchester students. She said one day this week her children arrived home nearly two hours late.
"I didn't think they were ever going to get home," said Cote. "I have a sitter here waiting to get them off the bus and I have to tell the sitter, they could be here any time between 3:30 and 4:30...5 o'clock."
Cote said she understands the challenges of being short-staffed, but hopes the school district can work on a solution with the bus company.
"I am really hoping that things change because it does make it difficult," said Cote.
Colchester Public Schools and M&J said they both have received phone calls from parents. They are asking for patience.
"We understand. I'm a parent as well. It's concerning when you expect your child to be dropped off at 3:45 and it's 4:50 and they are still not there," said Burt. "We are actively looking to make sure that we communicate on a regular basis and we are looking into an app with GPS on the buses to see if we can do some real-time tracking, but that is a long-term solution to a short-term problem."