Boston school leaders are bracing for a rough opening day of the school year next week as an acute labor shortage has prompted them to warn that some students will likely be picked up late or not at all.
The shortage goes beyond bus drivers as the district struggles to fill hundreds of other key positions, including cafeteria workers and teachers, just days before nearly 52,000 students return to classes on Sept. 9.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius estimated the school system’s private transit contractor, Transdev, still needs to hire some 40 to 60 drivers. To compensate for the shortage, the school system plans to consolidate some bus routes, which will likely lead to longer rides and delays, and might give out MBTA passes to some students.
“My team is in the process of determining the potential impact of these challenges for our students and exploring every alternative and all possible solutions,” Cassellius said Thursday.
Late buses and other transportation snafus have long cast a shadow over new school years, testing the patience of parents, students, and educators. As part of a sweeping improvement plan that takes effect this year, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has ordered the Boston school department to fix its busing problems once and for all.
Boston buses about 25,000 students a day and typically uses between 690 and 720 bus drivers.
Officials are blaming a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers for the situation, a chronic problem that has worsened during the pandemic because of safety concerns. A number of school districts have struggled to find drivers. In Worcester, the district scrapped bus transportation for an after-school program due to the shortage.
The Boston School Bus Drivers Union, which has lost several members to COVID-19, has repeatedly raised safety concerns during the pandemic and has demanded the city set up vaccination clinics at its bus yards, an effort Acting Mayor Kim Janey said on Thursday the city will pursue.
“Through my conversations with many of the bus drivers, there has been an interest in getting more bus drivers vaccinated,” Janey said. “It is why we’re standing up vaccine clinics in the bus yards as they have requested. So we will continue to work with them to get their team vaccinated as well as all city workers, as well as addressing the routing issues that the superintendent spoke of.”
But Cassellius said some drivers don’t want to get vaccinated, while others are not driving now because they are helping family members in Haiti in the aftermath of last month’s earthquake.
But the driver shortage is also partly of the school system’s own making: Its transportation department received student assignment data late, resulting in less efficient routes and schedules that will require more bus drivers.
Andre Francois, the president of the school bus drivers union, could not be reached for comment.
The School Transportation Association of Massachusetts estimates school districts and transportation companies across the state are short about 1,000 drivers.
“There is not a company out there that isn’t looking for drivers,” said Pam Reipold, the association’s president and co-owner of Travel Kuz, a busing company in Gill that contracts with nine districts in Franklin County.
Reipold was handling the company’s phones Thursday because every available employee who has a license to drive a bus was out doing a route. She said the approach has enabled her company to cover its routes and said the shortage would likely take the biggest hit on transporting students for field trips, athletics, and other extracurricular activities.
Boston school officials first revealed they were struggling to find bus drivers at a School Committee meeting Wednesday night. A few committee members expressed concern that some students might end up waiting on street corners on the first day of school for buses that will never arrive.
Such a situation happened in March 2020, when school officials gave families a few days’ notice that schools would be shutting down because of the pandemic, and also in October 2013, when thousands of students were stranded at bus stops after the drivers union held an unannounced strike.
“I want to know how are we going to ensure that every child is in their seat,” said School Committee member Lorena Lopera, who later pressed further. “What is the drop-dead date for families to hear whether they will be at a bus stop or if they have to make alternative plans?”
Other problems could trip up the buses this fall. Boston is still looking for nearly 100 bus monitors, a requirement for many students with disabilities to ride a bus, and the busing contractor is still negotiating a new labor agreement with the bus drivers union.
The busing woes are unfolding as Cassellius enters her third year on the job and attempts to navigate the system through a pandemic and help students catch up academically after more than a year of disruption.
Her performance is increasingly coming under scrutiny. The state-ordered district improvement plan calls for more effective management of the school system, which has been rocked by high turnover in leadership in recent years. In an embarrassing lapse this summer, Cassellius allowed her superintendent’s license to expire because she never took the certification exam.
Riley decided to extend her license until mid-September and Cassellius took the test last month. Results are pending.
Concerns over COVID-19 has been a stumbling block over recruiting applicants for other hourly wage jobs, such as cafeteria workers, and has contributed to the decision by some employees to quit altogether or retire, including teachers, school officials said.
As of Wednesday, Boston had openings for 69 teachers, 96 bus monitors, well more than 100 food service workers, and 79 classroom aides.
“Our department receives resignations and retirement announcements daily,” said Laura Benavidez, executive director of food and nutrition services. “The positions that are the most concerning that become vacant include the manager positions and the cook positions. Those positions are crucial and do cause a disruption in the meal preparation operation.”
Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.