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Riverhead school district facing shortage of bus drivers

Riverhead Central School District is facing a shortage of bus drivers that is being exacerbated by late student enrollments.

Students are enrolling late because many moved into the district over the summer and others have switched elementary schools, officials said at last Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting. When a large influx of students enters the district so close to the beginning of school, it makes it difficult to design and redesign the bus routes to accommodate the added volume, deputy superintendent Sam Schneider said during his presentation.

Nearly 240 students registered in the district between August and the first 10 days of September. The Riverhead Charter School reported 54 new registrations between Aug 1 and Sept. 10.

Mr. Schneider said, that as a result, on any given day the school district is understaffed by at least 10 drivers.

“In looking at the effect of the absence of any given day missing 10 drivers, I would invite you to imagine what it would be like academically if we were missing 10 teachers every single day in a school. It would be academically disastrous,” he said. 

Driver shortages is a nationwide issue, according to the New York Times and Washington Post. On Sunday, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a statewide initiative to address the problem in New York. 

It involves launching an outreach to more than 550,000 Commercial Driver’s License holders in the state. The state will also target currently unemployed drivers through the Department of Labor. The state will also work with law enforcement, firefighters, military and other organizations that have trained drivers in order to find more people interested in becoming school bus drivers.

The plan also includes measures to remove barriers to the recruitment of CDL drivers. The DMV is expediting the process for CDL completion by removing the 14-day waiting period between the permit test and road tests, according to the governor’s office.

They are also opening new CDL driver testing sites by partnering with SUNY, the Thruway Authority, New York Racing Association and the Office of General Services to use large lots at various sites for the road tests. For school staff who currently hold a CDL, the state will offer expedited testing to obtain a permit to drive vans and buses temporarily.

The state also encourages schools to be creative and offer a wide array of benefits for school bus drivers. Some suggestions included signing and retention bonuses and expansion of benefits. Schools can use federal funds to provide these benefits, according to the governor’s office.

The Riverhead school district is also running advertisements for the positions in newspapers from Montauk to Huntington to recruit more staff.

The district-owned transportation department employs 145 people and transports 5,914 students to and from 27 schools, including public schools, special education schools, non-public schools and the charter school.