Bus driver shortage forces cancellation of school in Pine Bush

By Connor Linskey
Posted 9/14/21

The Pine Bush Central School District has faced some challenges with its busing at the onset of the new school year.

It all started on Sept. 8 when there were a number of bus runs with no drivers. …

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Bus driver shortage forces cancellation of school in Pine Bush

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The Pine Bush Central School District has faced some challenges with its busing at the onset of the new school year.

It all started on Sept. 8 when there were a number of bus runs with no drivers. Pine Bush Superintendent Tim Mains encouraged families with children assigned to those routes to arrange transportation to and from school for them. If parents/guardians were unable to get their child to school, their absence was counted as excused.

Birnie Bus Service, Inc. representatives told Mains that several drivers on loan to the district’s terminal two weeks ago had to return to their regular terminals because their schools did not start until last week.

“I have no explanation as to why I would not have known the extent of this problem until tonight, but as soon as I got this bad news, I knew you also needed to know in order to plan for tomorrow,” Mains said to parents in a Sept. 7 announcement on the district’s website.

Following the announcement of more uncovered runs on Sept. 9, the district created two new Facebook groups to facilitate parents getting in touch with one another to create carpools or ride shares.

“First off, tonight will be the last time a call will be made to announce that some children can be transported to school and some cannot,” Mains said in a post to the district website on Sept. 8. “I have informed Birnie Bus that I am unwilling to deny some students access to instruction.”

The following day, Mains was informed that the same 12 bus routes that were not covered on Sept. 9 would not be covered again the next day. As a result, all Pine Bush district-run schools were closed on Sept. 10.

While there was no bus transportation to the seven district schools, there was bus transportation for all special needs students who attend an out-of-district school. Similarly, all of the private school bus routes ran on Sept. 10.

Mains also reminded parents that he cannot close schools and simply pivot to remote instruction because Chromebooks have not been distributed to all students. He encouraged parents to sign the agreement that was sent to their child’s email address, so they can borrow the Chromebook. Parents/guardians who purchased a Chromebook for their child to use at home should email their child’s building principal.

On Sept. 10, the entire Pine Bush administrative team met to design a temporary fix to their transportation challenge in a way that gets all kids back in school every day. The fix will require some buses to drive two routes to the same school one after the other in order to compensate for routes currently uncovered due to the driver shortage. That means that some buses will have to get to schools much earlier than usual and some will be picking up students in the afternoon much later than normal. That will require the district to identify staff willing to provide added supervision beyond the scope of the normal school day. Principals have already begun to recruit those critical positions.

Working with Birnie Bus, the district was able to consolidate some additional runs on Friday that should improve the situation. However, the district still has to recast nearly every student’s pick-up and drop-off times, be able to prepare the staff at each school to know which students are coming or leaving at which times and also be able to communicate that important information to all Pine Bush families.

The staff selected to provide supervision also needs to be briefed on their responsibilities and provided with a roster of the children assigned to them either before or after school. Mains noted in a Sept. 10 announcement on the district website that even working through the weekend to try to get approximately 100 routes recast, the district simply would not be able to put this plan in place by Monday. Due to this, he extended the emergency closure by one more day to include Monday, Sept. 13. This allowed the district to finish the preparations needed to put this new temporary plan into action.

While there was no transportation Monday to the district’s seven schools, there was bus transportation for all special needs students who attend an out-of-district school. The Pine Bush administration spent the weekend creating a set of bus routes directly from the homes of high school students enrolled in C-Tech programs to their classes at BOCES and back.

“I understand that some are alarmed that I will now be using two of our emergency days so early in the school year,” Mains advised parents in an announcement on the district website on Friday. “You should know that we have five scheduled days to use for any type of emergency. As we get further into the school year, should we need to use more than five, we can, on those occasions, pivot to remote instruction if need be.”

He added that he spoke with Sen. James Skoufis, who is trying to help many school districts in his senate district that are facing problems similar to Pine Bush.

“His assistance may very well help us get to our long-term solution that returns our school schedules back to what they normally are,” Mains said regarding his conversation with Skoufis.

On Saturday, Mains announced on the district website that he was converting Monday’s school closure into a superintendent’s conference day. He invited school-related professionals (SRPs) as well as teaching staff to attend, so they can resolve the busing problem.

“By having all hands on deck, we can better prepare to implement the complete overhaul of the schedules in four of our seven schools,” Mains said. “In the new schedule, some students will be in school longer than others, but that extra time will largely be a supervised study hall.”

Mains confirmed that in addition to speaking with Skoufis, he also spoke with Sen. Mike Martucci. Both senators have pledged to help the district accelerate the DMV approval for potential drivers seeking a CDL license needed to drive a school bus.

The superintendent added that the busing problem was not caused by the district, it was caused by Birnie Bus when they violated their contract with Pine Bush.

“Now we are focused on fixing it,” Mains said Saturday regarding the busing problem. “And when I think about the spirit expressed by all of the union presidents and other staff I’ve spoken with, I am reminded why we are Pine Bush Strong. That sense of unity and resolve reminds me of those days after 9/11 some 20 years ago when we all came together after that awful day. Our staff continues to inspire me and they should be hailed as heroes, not heckled or ridiculed. I thank them all for what they have already done and what they are about to do on Monday.”

Mains announced Sunday that over the weekend, the district reformatted every in-district bus route (and several to programs outside the district). There are a series of digital handshakes required to get that information from the routing software, into SchoolTool and then into an email message for each of the district’s 5,000 students. Mains confirmed that information should be sent to students’ email addresses sometime Monday. He also requested that all families be called to ensure they receive that critical information.

To create some protection for the district moving forward, Mains announced a new Pine Bush initiative Sunday to identify current employees who may be interested in learning how to drive a school bus.

“If you work in any job category and would be willing to get your CDL license, we will help you get that license and teach you how to drive a big bus,” he announced Sunday. “This could include athletic coaches, SRPs, O&M staff, anyone really who has the interest and the available time. Hourly staff who want to help out could get unlimited overtime pay for driving a bus beyond their regular duties.”

Those interested in joining the new corps of Pine Bush backup bus drivers should call or email Kurt Wickham in the transportation office.

Mains is confident that the busing problem will be resolved soon.

“By the time school restarts on Tuesday, we will have all routes covered and we have already launched efforts that can transition the temporary fix back to our regular school schedule within the next six weeks,” he said.

Calls to the Birnie Bus office in Pine Bush were referred to Jim Caruso, general area manager for Birnie Bus. As of press time, Caruso had not responded to a request for comment from the Wallkill Valley Times.

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