School bus driver shortage in CT leads to delays in Stamford

A bus driver wears a mask while driving students on the first day of the 2020-2021 school year at Westover Elementary School in Stamford, Conn. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

A bus driver wears a mask while driving students on the first day of the 2020-2021 school year at Westover Elementary School in Stamford, Conn. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

STAMFORD — A nationwide bus driver shortage has affected the morning and afternoon trips to and from school for some Stamford students this week.

Sharon Beadle, spokesperson for Stamford Public Schools, said some drivers called in sick this week. Finding replacements has been tricky because of driver shortages across the state. That has meant longer wait times than usual for some students, she said.

In the case of Peter Dao’s son, it meant a delay of four hours on Tuesday morning.

Dao lives in North Stamford near the New York state line, and his 13-year-old son takes an early bus to Cloonan Middle School, in downtown Stamford.

On Monday, Dao’s wife drove their son to school after the bus hadn’t arrived by 7:15 a.m. The pick up time is 6:30 a.m.

On Tuesday, Dao made multiple calls to district officials to report the late bus, which finally arrived at 10:30 a.m.

“As a taxpayer, I was appalled,” Dao said, adding that his wife had to take the entire morning off work.

Dao was not satisfied with the explanation that the delays were caused by a bus shortage, since he said bus delays have happened multiple times in the past, including pre-pandemic.

He said his son, who is autistic, had a “meltdown” due to the anxiety and stress he felt by the bus being late by multiple hours. By the time his son got to school, he had missed the first three classes of the day.

“Even one day of missed school is a huge thing,” Dao said.

By Wednesday morning, Dao said the bus was on time.

Beadle did not directly respond to Dao’s situation, but said there was one “very unfortunate isolated incident due to a miscommunication about the required stop for a particular bus.”

She added, “We have identified and addressed the issue.”

Beadle said on Wednesday that the district was still experiencing bus delays due to the shortage of drivers, but that Wednesday was much better than Monday and Tuesday.

Beadle did not say how many buses or students were impacted by the shortage, but a message was put out to Stamford families early Monday morning warning of the expected delays.

Bus service in Stamford is provided by Ohio-based First Student. A message was left with the company, but was not immediately returned.

Beadle said Stamford has not been affected previously by the shortage since the district has had enough drivers to cover all the routes. The biggest issue is filling in for drivers who call out sick.

“We’re just asking families to be understanding and patient,” Beadle said. “It’s not a First Student issue, it’s not a Stamford Public Schools issue, it’s an issue impacting the entire state of Connecticut.”

It’s also impossible to say the issue has been resolved, Beadle said.

“We don’t have enough substitutes, so you don’t know on any given day how many people are going to call out,” she said.

Across the state, districts have reported driver shortages, with companies saying they have struggled to fill openings, in part because of the pandemic.

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said much of the issue is finding substitute drivers.

“What I have heard from superintendents is they had enough drivers — many tell me they had enough, but they had absolutely no substitutes,” she told Hearst Connecticut Media earlier this month. “If a bus driver is out for illness, it’s better than them working while sick, but you always want to have substitutes available.”

Jay Brock, a spokesman for First Student, had earlier stated that driver shortages remain an issue.

“The student transportation industry was already managing a bus driver shortage before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation,” he told Hearst. “We are no different than so many other job sectors that are struggling to fill openings, including retail, restaurants and hotels.”

The Stamford Public Schools website on transportation includes a link that reads “Stamford needs school bus drivers” that leads to an application to work for First Student.