OLD SAYBROOK, Conn. (WTNH) – Before Hannah Bernard starts her route, she inspects the entire school bus. Not only is she a driver for M&J Bus, but she trains new drivers.
This year, they say they are lucky to have more drivers thanks in part to a recent recruiting effort.
“The big event the other week was fantastic,” said Jon Hipsher, COO of M&J Bus.
The event lead to several new hires who are now in training.
“So, we do go over quite a few things in an open parking lot,” Bernard said.
Higher pay, which starts at about $19 an hour, and the ability to take their children with them may have helped get more drivers behind the wheel.
“You don’t have that extra childcare cost, which is amazing,” Bernard said.
Even though there are still quite a few openings, bus companies say they are in better shape than they were this time last year when the bus driver shortage reached crisis levels. They have more drivers and more plans in place in case there is another outbreak, COVID or otherwise.
“We are better prepared. You kind of shift on the fly right into plan B, C, or D, whatever is going to be in front of you that day,” Hipsher said.
“We are actually optimistic about the start of the school year,” said Mary Anne Butler, Stonington Superintendent of Schools.
Stonington schools has contracted with First Student for 27 drivers. They have 22 now and three in training, which is better than pre-pandemic levels.
So, what can parents expect for the new year? Chances are that hub or consolidated routes from last year may still be in place even though there are more drivers. That’s because they want to make sure if there’s another situation where there’s a major shortage, they don’t want to have to switch things up again in the middle of the year.
“Going in with 22 known drivers when we really need 24, we want to make sure that we’re not overpromising. We want to overdeliver and not overpromise,” Butler said.
Butler says they also want to keep things as predictable as possible for families.
“If you’re fortunate enough to have a spare driver, you may just want to keep that person as a spare rather than being flat even on your runs again,” Hipsher said.
Parents have also learned to roll with the punches and are asked to be patient again while sharing in the excitement of the new year.
“I’m going to have a lot of kindergarteners on my run this year, so I’m excited to meet them and get them on board,” Bernard said.