By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
A shortage of bus drivers threatens the complete return of students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools this year and poses possible transportation shortages for the fall.
During a media briefing Friday, which marked the end of the first week of hybrid classes for about 4,800 students, district officials outlined the transportation obstacles they face.
The district had enough drivers to bring back this week’s cohort of students and expects to be able to transport the next cohort of about 5,200 students that are set to return on April 26.
But there is a 1,200-seat gap for the remaining group of about 10,000 students who qualify to return on May 3. The gap is expected to grow and to also affect the district’s ability to transport private, religious and charter school students as well.
Superintendent Anthony Hamlet encouraged parents who can provide transportation for their students to do so and other families to prepare for their students to continue learning online if drivers cannot be hired in time.
Some bus seats may become available after the configuration of this week’s routes. There were 20 empty bus routes which could be redirected if parents of the students who were slated for those buses notify the district that they don’t plan to use the seats, said Megan Patton, director of pupil transportation.
Students sit two to a seat while wearing masks.
Patton said the district scrambled to get 27 bus routes covered after nine drivers took leave this week.
Patton also encouraged families to provide their own transportation if possible and to notify the district if their children do not need seats on district buses.
Patton said the district needs to hire 200 drivers in order to meet the demand for transportation for the May 3 group of students.
Todd O’Shell, vice president of ABC Transit, one of the district’s bus contractors, said the shortage of drivers, which existed before the COVID-19 pandemic — was worsened during the pandemic when school was closed and drivers found other job opportunities — largely with package delivery services.
In order to recruit drivers to his firm, O’Shell said he is paying hourly wages of $21.42 and a signing bonus of $2,500 to drivers who already have the required Commercial Drivers License.
For those interested in the job but don’t have a Commercial Driver’s License, his firm is offering paid CDL classes.
O’Shell said it takes about six weeks for a new applicant to earn a CDL. That makes it unlikely that newly-trained drivers would be ready for the May 3 return to school for the remaining students.
On the district’s end, it will provide for an early return to school for children whose parents are bus drivers and will attempt to get transportation help from community groups and local churches.
Patton and Hamlet said the issue is also looming for the fall, when the district will need an additional 350 drivers to meet its transportation needs.
The district provides transportation for about 30,000 students, including about 22,000 Pittsburgh Public Schools students and charter and private school students. It uses 20 transportation contractors.
District officials are asking all families whose students receive transportation via yellow buses to notify it if they are able to transport their children via Let’s Talk at www.pghschools.org/Letstalk or at 412-529-HELP, so that unused seats can be reassigned.