With a number of local school districts facing bus driver shortages, Governor Charlie Baker activated the Massachusetts National Guard Monday to assist with school transportation, starting in four cities.
Up to 250 personnel will be available, with 90 Guard members slated to begin training on Tuesday to help with transportation in the Chelsea, Lawrence, Lowell, and Lynn school systems, according to a statement from the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
The members will drive school transport vans known as 7D vehicles, which have a maximum of 11 seats, including the driver. The vans are primarily used for driving students with special needs, according to the Massachusetts National Guard. Bus monitors will be required to be aboard each vehicle.
Baker told reporters after the announcement that if the state can find more people who are qualified to assist with school transportation, “we’ll try to serve as many communities as we can.” He did not provide an estimate of how much the National Guard assistance would cost but said it would be reimbursed by the federal government, “like many things associated with COVID.”
“Obviously the goal here is to try to make sure if we have vehicles, we put people on them who are qualified to drive them and do what we can to make sure kids can get to school,” he said.
The Massachusetts cities receiving help from the National Guard are among countless districts nationwide feeling the effects of a bus driver shortage, a chronic problem worsened by the health risks from an ongoing pandemic. In Worcester, for example, the district scrapped bus transportation for an after-school program because of the shortage.
NRT Bus Inc., which provides transportation for 150 districts and standalone schools in Massachusetts, including all four cities that will get National Guard assistance, is short about 350 drivers, but has about 200 currently moving through the hiring and vetting process, said John McCarthy, CEO of NRT Bus Inc.
“It’s not just the company,” McCarthy said. “It’s nationwide. I don’t think it’s any secret what’s going on in the school bus industry.”
McCarthy said he’s hopeful he can get his workforce back to pre-pandemic levels in the next six to eight weeks. McCarthy’s company plans to assist with training the National Guard members on Tuesday.
In Chelsea, one of the four cities to receive the first round of assistance, Superintendent Almi Abeyta said approximately 20 percent of buses have been running late so far this school year because of a shortage of drivers.
“This will help ensure that we can get our students to school on time,” she said.
Abeyta said she has not yet been told when the drivers will start filling in. The city of 6,000 students expects to have 15 National Guard drivers helping out to start, she said; all must first undergo fingerprinting and background checks.
It was not immediately clear how many students will be driven to school by the National Guard — or for how long. But officials reassured the public that the guard’s more typical duties will not be affected.
It was unclear after Monday’s announcement whether the Boston Public Schools also will receive help with its transportation system, which also is experiencing a shortage that caused widespread delays, including on the first day of classes Thursday.
Baker said the state offered National Guard assistance to Boston, but school officials declined for now. But a BPS spokesman argues they did not reject the state’s help with its transportation system.
“BPS is focused on long-term solutions and we are awaiting further details of the Governor’s offer of temporary assistance from the National Guard,” Xavier Andrews, the district spokesman wrote in an e-mail. “There are many logistics to consider for a district of our size and BPS will continue to explore every option.”
The delays came after city and school district leaders warned families last week to brace for the busing problems. Several parents took to social media Thursday raising concerns that their children were picked up late, or not at all. Just 57 percent of buses arrived before the morning bell Thursday, according to the district, though that percentage rose to 81 percent the next day.
On Monday, 76 percent of BPS buses arrived on time, and 94 percent arrived within 15 minutes of bell time, according to the city.
Boston’s transportation contractor, Transdev, has hired 46 drivers since July, according to the district, but still needs about 20 more drivers to meet this year’s transportation needs.
Prior to the start of classes in Boston, the bus drivers union had implored city leaders to postpone the start of in-person classes. Boston buses about 25,000 students daily, around half of its student body.
“Routing for the 2021–2022 school year is by far the worst fiasco we’ve witnessed in our careers,” the union said in a press release earlier this month. “It would appear that it was the result of mismanagement and incompetent routing.”
Hardin Coleman, a Boston School Committee member, said transportation is an important issue for the city’s schools, but also complicated, with potential unseen liabilities accompanying any temporary fix.
“I welcome any more support for our kids if it’s the right thing to do, and it’s up to the superintendent to make that call,” he said. “This is important, but it’s not central to learning, and I worry when every problem is elevated and politicized to challenge a superintendent’s competency.”
Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.