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School districts plan for vaccine mandate's effect on bus runs

With Gov. Ned Lamont's vaccine mandate set to go into effect on Monday, school districts in southeastern Connecticut are anticipating the impact on bus schedules.

The order requires state workers, school employees and staff at child care facilities — including bus drivers — to be vaccinated by Sept. 27 or undergo a coronavirus test weekly.

One statewide school transportation group found that at least 227 drivers were willing to walk off the job rather than conform to the mandate, according to the Hartford Courant.

Norwich has been preparing for this day since the executive order was first announced, according to Superintendent of Schools Kristen Stringfellow. She said transportation through Ohio-based First Student Inc. is expected to run as scheduled with no interruption of service on Monday.

"We have been working with (First Student) for almost a month now to ensure that would be the case and although we built in contingency plans in case of emergency, it does not appear that we will need to use them," she said.

First Student offers signing bonuses of up to $4,000 to attract drivers, according to its spokesman.

A statewide survey of 12 bus companies conducted by the Connecticut School Transportation Association found 227 drivers out of 1,558 currently unvaccinated drivers said they would refuse the shot and the weekly tests, the Courant reported.

Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser said the district expects its fleet of 12 buses to go down by one on Monday. The buses are operated by M&J Bus Inc. of Old Saybrook, which also serves Salem and North Stonington.

He said the district ran 15 to 17 buses in a typical, pre-pandemic year.

Neviaser said the buses hold up to 77 students each, though the district doesn't end up close to that because many parents drive their students to and from school. He said two runs will be combined to make up for the shortfall.

"We're unfortunately looking at probably a couple longer runs for a few days until we can get this resolved and maybe a few more kids on the bus, but we won't be exceeding the capacity of the bus at any point," he said.

Max Reiss, Lamont's chief spokesman, said the state is looking at several ways to provide transport to school should there be a shortage of drivers in the coming weeks.

"We're expediting requests for things like background checks, fingerprinting and training, so if there's a district that has a couple drivers in the pipeline who are vaccinated, starting Monday, we can get them moving on the bus and transporting kids," he said. "We're also looking at the possibility of utilizing things like local transit authorities to see if they can provide some support."

Reiss said the governor's office is collaborating with the Department of Social Services to try and use Veyo, a state contractor that provides nonemergency medical transportation.

"They could potentially provide some help or support for special education students," Reiss said of Veyo.

He said the state is installing a process that could "provide what you know as mutual aid."

"People are familiar with mutual aid when it comes to fire, police and emergency management," Reiss continued. "We're looking to capitalize on that for things like bus drivers where perhaps there's a way to go across district lines with the sharing of some resources."

As for whether the governor is expecting mass shortages of bus drivers across the state, "I think the disruption could go on, I don't know if it will be one day, but it's been made clear there are going to be some people who are people of their word who aren't going to work anymore," Reiss said.

He added the governor maintains that getting vaccinated is the safest course of action and supported by most parents.

Waterford, Groton, Ledyard and Griswold are served by Student Transportation of America, according to media relations director Jen Holzapfel.

In a statement, she said the pandemic exacerbated an existing shortage of bus drivers across the country.

"This includes many unanticipated retirements, mostly due to health concerns from those with pre-existing conditions and those who are at a higher risk for COVID-19, as well as a limited applicant pool of new recruits," Holzapfel said.

She said extended unemployment benefits in place for more than a year, which recently ran out, "paid more than the part-time and hourly jobs previously held" by the bus drivers. "Plus, the process of onboarding new drivers has also been even further delayed as many of the certification and licensing procedures have become backlogged over the past 18 months."

She said the company is communicating with its districts in southeastern Connecticut on anticipated staffing challenges and is working to analyze bus routes in order to identify ways to maximize services.

Groton Superintendent of Schools Susan Austin said the district has had about 10 fewer drivers this year. But she's hoping for "smoother sailing" now that some are coming back and more have been hired.

She said she has been communicating with families on a regular basis to let them know when buses are running late or when runs need to be combined.

She said the district's goal had been not to fill the buses beyond 66% capacity, or two to a seat. "Unfortunately, because of the shortage, that hasn't always happened," she said.

Barbara Brigham, the company's Waterford manager, said she isn't worried about any drivers in the district walking out. She described her staff as happy and vaccinated.

First Student Inc. operates buses in New London, East Lyme and Stonington as well as Norwich. Spokesman Jay Brock said "a number" of the Ohio-based company's drivers have decided not to return to work this year for various reasons.

First Student is actively recruiting, hiring and training new drivers, according to the spokesman. He said it offers "an aggressive" hourly rate and sign-on bonuses of $4,000 for drivers with a commercial license and $1,500 for those without. He did not specify the starting hourly rate.

Over in East Lyme, Superintendent of Schools Jeff Newton said the district has had "great luck" with its bus drivers.

"We've had zero issues," he said. "There's no discussion of any walk outs. I don't anticipate any problems in East Lyme next week."

e.regan@theday.com

s.spinella@theday.com

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