Gov. Charlie Baker is calling in the troops to drive students to school in some Massachusetts cities and towns amid widespread bus driver shortages.
The Republican governor announced he will activate up to 250 members of the Massachusetts National Guard to aid with school transportation, starting on Tuesday with Chelsea, Lawrence, Lowell and Lynn, where shortages are among the worst.
“We’ve had conversations with a lot of our colleagues in municipal government about the issue associated with drivers, but people were not really sure where it was all going to land,” Baker said at the State House on Monday. “Once it became pretty clear that there were going to be some communities that would be shorthanded … we started talking to the Guard.”
Baker said Boston Public Schools has declined the state’s offer. It’s unclear how long the National Guard will be behind the wheel or how much it will cost, but Baker said since the shortage is a symptom of the pandemic, it can be reimbursed with federal coronavirus relief dollars.
Guard personnel will be trained and available to serve as drivers of school transport vans known as 7D vehicles, according to a statement from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
The 7D vehicles are smaller school transport vans that can carry up to 10 students, according to state law.
A shortage of bus drivers in Massachusetts and across the nation has complicated the start of a school year already besieged by the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant, fights over masking requirements, and the challenge of catching up on educational ground lost as the pandemic raged last year.
A shortage of school buses meant some didn’t show up on the first day of school last week in Boston despite promises from Acting Mayor Kim Janey that student transportation would be unaffected, some parents complained.
A 57% on-time rate for students arriving at school last Thursday was still better than the five-year average for the first day of school, according to the district. The on-time rate jumped to 87% the following day.
But the Boston school bus drivers’ union has called the staffing shortage “the worst fiasco we’ve witnessed in our careers” and had pushed officials to postpone the start of school the year.
The driver shortfall has been brewing since the spring and labor shortages across many sectors and the pandemic’s lingering effects have made it worse, said Joanna McFarland, co-founder and CEO of school ride-service company HopSkipDrive, which tracks school bus issues.
Her company conducted a survey in March that found nearly 80% of districts that responded were having trouble finding enough bus drivers.
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