The national bus driver shortage is looming over the fall sports season for Newton’s high schools, with coaches and players facing possible game cancellations and postponements.
Newton South Vice Principal Jason Williams sent a letter to the Newton South community earlier in September asking available family members to help transport students to games and practices in the event of bus unavailability.
Patricia Gonzalez, Newton South athletics director, said she is working with colleagues at other schools in the league to find solutions for the bus shortage, such as pushing back match start times and playing games at home instead of away. She said the “goodwill of our families” has helped teams this season.
“We will work our best not to cancel games to give the students the best opportunities that we can,” Gonzalez said. “But there are a lot of things that are beyond our control. We are living in unprecedented times, and we need to be flexible for that.”
Gonzlez said Newton South’s late school dismissal has contributed to the difficulties of finding buses for sporting events.
In May the Newton School Committee unanimously approved a new bell schedule for the fall semester that starts school at 9 a.m. and releases students at 3:45 p.m. every day except for Tuesday, which ends at 3:25 p.m.
Newton South’s games must start after 4:30 p.m. due to the later release, Gonzales said, but because of the distance between schools in the league, players have to leave around the same time buses are taking students home from school.
“Since the season started we have had to send our students by self transportation to many, many events,” Gonzlez said. “We hope that things get better.”
The bus shortage also is impacting Newton North High School sports, Gonzalez said. And across the state, there have been bus driver shortages.
Gonzalez said other places in the state are facing “more severe situations” with the busing shortage. Governor Charlie Baker brought in the Massachusetts National Guard to help transport students to school in four cities in the state in mid-September: Lynn, Lowell, Lawrence, and Chelsea.
Prior to the pandemic, Newton Public Schools had five spare bus drivers and every bus route had a dedicated driver, said NPS Director of Communications Julie McDonough. Additionally, four to six drivers were dedicated to athletics, she said.
Now, NPS is short four drivers, leaving only one spare driver, which McDonough said is “not a comfortable place to be.” For athletics, there is currently one dedicated driver.
“There’s a lot of things that are happening that are a consequence of COVID,” Gonzalez said. “We hope people [are] understanding and keep in mind that it’s something that’s affecting everyone at different levels across all working situations.”
Tracy Lin, a parent of two Newton South soccer players, said there have been times this season when her daughter had a game at 4 or 4:30 p.m., but there were no buses available, and the team couldn’t leave the school until 5 p.m.
For parents and guardians to be eligible to help drive students to sporting events, they must complete a Volunteer Driver Application and a CORI/SORI form. Additionally, they must provide a driver’s license, registration and insurance information.
Lin said the bus driver shortage will be especially difficult for working parents.
“If they have to work and the kids don’t have the bus there might be issues,” she said.
Lacee Satcher, a Boston College assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies, said the bus driver shortage will have varying impacts on families in Newton and around the country based on their socioeconomic background. For example, some parents have much stricter work schedules, Satcher said, and violating any of their guidelines could lead to unemployment.
“Parents are scrambling to try to figure out how their child is going to get to school or how they’re going to get them from school to home or to sporting events,” she said. “I think for some families this shortage didn’t really change up the schedule. Some families have a lot more flexibility with regards to employment.”
Satcher said the busing situation also can add strain on peer relationships. Some students may experience anxiety when asking a friend for a ride, she said, or they may not want their peers to know where they live.
“Sports bring students together, and to throw that wrench in there leads to more alienation,” she said. “All of these changes are going on in these students’ lives, and they’re trying to brave their way through it. But at some point we have to start to consider, in the long term, how is this affecting our children.”
Colbi Edmonds can be reached at email@example.com.