School Bus Companies, And Drivers, Face COVID’s Financial Fallout

School bus driver Maureen McAlear loves her job, but it’s not what it used to be. Hybrid school schedules and few after school activities mean drivers are working — and earning — less. McAlear, who is a union steward for her fellow drivers, said they rely on full pay and the extra driving to make ends meet.

“It means we can pay our mortgage, we can buy food and put it on the table and pay our bills, heating, electricity and our car payment to get us to work. We’re not jet-setting out to Aruba. This is money that we need. These drivers aren’t independently wealthy,” she said.

When schools reopen fully, many will count on those familiar yellow buses to be ready to roll. But local bus companies — which make up an estimated 40 percent of the country’s school transport — are facing financial threat. Even when buses are idle, companies have fixed costs to pay, including insurance, maintenance and paying drivers. The School Transportation Association of Massachusetts (STAM) said more than a dozen local companies are in financial trouble.

And even before the pandemic, keeping a roster of trained and vetted school bus drivers wasn’t easy. With a rise in demand for delivery drivers, there’s a worry drivers are being lured away.

“We need to be able to pay them what they’re accustomed to getting or we’re gonna lose them,” said David Strong, president of STAM. “Amazon is looking for drivers because their business is booming. Why not a school bus driver?”

Haverhill Schools, NRT Outline Safety Steps as School Buses Begin Rolling this Term

School buses will soon be rolling through Haverhill.

Yesterday, the school administration published the bus routes for this year. School Assistant Superintendent Michael Pfifferling reminded the School Committee last night that because of social distancing and other COVID-19 restrictions, coming up with a schedule was a puzzle and, for the first time, requires students have a bus pass in order to ride.

“A tremendous amount of work has been put in getting us the information we need as far as cohorts and who needs bus passes. There are two different types of bus passes. One is a cohort A bus pass. Those are bus passes for transportation on Monday and Tuesday and a cohort B bus pass, which is good for transportation on Thursday and Friday. Students who go Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday will be issued two bus passes,” he explained.

Pfifferling said about 3,000 passes have been printed and are available for pickup now. He acknowledged not all parents and students will be able to pick them up before Monday, however, so there will be some leniency during the first week.

Christine Valcourt of NRT, the company that provides school bus transportation for the city, explained what steps that company was taking to safeguard the students who will be riding.

“We are fogging the buses daily with a 24-hour disinfectant. We have put markings on the seats so we are one student staggered per seat. The school department is supplying us with spare masks for students that don’t have any, so those will be in every bus along with hand sanitizer and cleaning equipment for spills. Social distancing is being watched at bus stops and I’ve got to tell you, the whole team can’t wait to get back to work,” she said.

Valcourt said the company’s safety department also put together a video on school bus safety and procedures, which the assistant superintendent said will be posted on the Haverhill Public Schools website along with all of the bus routes and schedules.

On school buses this fall: masks, open windows, and distanced seat assignments

Students will have to don face coverings to board school buses this fall, but they will each get an entire seat to themselves to maintain social distancing, under new state guidelines that will dramatically reduce ridership and complicate reopening plans for many districts across Massachusetts.

The seating restriction — instead of the usual two or three students per seat — means ridership capacity will shrink by more than 50 percent and could dramatically increase the cost of busing students.

That, in turn, could cause districts to implore parents to drive or walk their children to school, or lead school districts to operate buses in multiple waves, stagger school start times, or alternate students between days of in-person instruction and remote learning, according to the guidelines created in response to the pandemic.

“In developing this guidance, the health and safety of students and staff were our top priorities,” state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley wrote in a letter to superintendents that was sent out late Wednesday night with the guidelines.
The guidelines also recommend hand sanitizing, cleaning buses after morning and afternoon runs, opening school bus windows as much as possible, and assigning students to specific seats. The latter could result in having a student sit near a window in one row and having another student near the aisle in the next row to ensure the greatest distance possible. The guidelines are designed to maintain a distance of at least 3 feet between students.

The rules come as districts statewide are scrambling to meet a July 31 deadline to submit a summary of three fall options they are developing — under orders from state education officials — that would provide a full-scale return to school, a continuation of only remote learning, or a mix of the two. Comprehensive plans are due Aug. 10.

School district officials have been stalled in crafting their reopening plans because critical guidance from the state, including safety measures for school buses, have been trickling out slowly as state officials consult with educators, medical experts, and other stakeholders. Governor Charlie Baker, who ordered schools closed in March, is encouraging all districts to bring back as many students as possible this fall, depending on the course of the pandemic.

Districts could gain some wiggle room on buses, depending on how many parents keep their children at home. Children can also share seats if they live in the same household.

Given that busing students could take more time this fall, the state will allow districts to cut into required instructional hours on a case-by-case basis.

Robert Baldwin, superintendent of the Fairhaven school system on the South Coast, said the ever-evolving information on school reopening is creating a tense decision-making process. The transportation guidelines, he said, have him wondering if he will need additional bus runs, whether the transportation company will have the capacity to do it, and how that might influence the final school reopening plan.

“This is like a three-month-long snow day decision: constantly having different variables change and then you have to make adjustments,” he said. “And in the end, you know what will happen when you make a call, people will disagree with you.”

That dynamic is already emerging in Lexington, which decided at the end of June to do a mix of in-person and remote learning for the coming school year. Some parents, upset the district won’t do a full-scale return to school this fall, are planning a protest Friday night.

The new guidelines generated a range of reactions. Chris Matero, a West Roxbury parent, said he was comfortable with the guidelines, noting his children’s commutes will likely be the safest part of their day. His son has been traveling in a small school bus with few students on board while his daughter takes a commuter rail train, which has had few riders lately, and an MBTA bus.

“I’m more concerned about them spending the whole day in their classrooms,” he said, citing poor ventilation in the school system’s aging buildings. He thinks in-person learning should be delayed until a vaccine or a reliable COVID-19 treatment is available, but his children are eager to return.

Boston school officials are leaning toward a mix of in-person and remote learning in the fall, citing concerns about transportation as part of their rationale.

Andre Francois, president of the Boston School Bus Drivers Union, said the transportation guidelines don’t go far enough and doubted the staggered seating would ensure 3 feet of social distancing, especially given how active children are.

“They are not going to stay in their seats,” he said. “People are going to get sick like crazy.”

Four Boston school bus drivers died of COVID-19 this spring, he said.

Transportation restrictions are expected to be the most cumbersome for Boston, which buses more than 24,000 students to 235 city-run, private, and charter schools. It remains unclear how social distancing will strain its fleet of 721 buses. Boston school officials have been criticized for years for running too many buses with few students on board, while most students in grades 7-12 take the MBTA.

The state guidelines also address students who will be riding public transit, encouraging districts to avoid having students ride during rush hour, among other measures.

Jonathan Palumbo, a district spokesman, said in a statement school officials will closely read the state’s busing guidelines.

The state guidelines, in addressing students who may appear to be sick, seem to offer somewhat contradictory advice at times. For instance, the guidelines recommend posting signs near the doors of the buses “clearly indicating that no one may enter if they have symptoms of respiratory illness or fever” and if children become sick during the school day, they shouldn’t ride the bus.

However, the guidelines also state “if a student who may be symptomatic must board the vehicle, they should be spaced at least 6 feet from other students as feasible” and that area should not be used again until after it has been disinfected.

The state guidelines, like the ones the state issued for classrooms, set a lower standard for social distancing on school buses than the 6 feet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended in its guidelines, which suggested leaving every other row empty.

The CDC guidelines would have likely limited capacity on a typical bus to about a dozen students, making it unfeasible to transport students, said John McCarthy, chief executive officer of NRT and Van Pool, a school busing company based in Framingham. He applauded Massachusetts education officials for finding a comfortable middle ground between the CDC guidelines and private sector transportation operators, noting that airlines are leaving only middle seats empty and some are now even filling those.

“They did a great job of minimizing risk and capitalizing on safety,” said McCarthy, who sits on the state’s school reopening task force and had a hand in developing the busing guidelines. “It’s very well thought out.”

Nevertheless, he said the guidelines could cause challenges. For instance, he said, a shortage of school bus drivers — compounded by some current drivers at high risk of COVID-19 — could make it difficult for districts to add more buses. But he added some laid-off workers in other sectors of the economy hard hit by the pandemic might find bus driving jobs appealing.

Pentucket community members deliver signs to graduates

Superintendent Justin Bartholomew and Pentucket High School Principal Jonathan Seymour recently shared that administrators, volunteer parents, first responders and community members from Groveland, Merrimac and West Newbury came together to spread some cheer among the senior class.

Approximately 180 seniors were greeted by administrators and parents who rode buses decorated with banners that read “Class of 2020 We are Proud of You” and printed with the Pentucket “P” on May 12. The buses were accompanied by a fire engine and police cruiser from each town.

“This was a really special, festive way for us to recognize our seniors and surprise them at a time when they may need a reminder that we’re all here for them,” Seymour said. “They’ve accomplished a great deal over their high school careers and we want them to know we’re proud of the young adults they’ve all become.”

The effort was coordinated by the Pentucket Parent Alliance Senior Celebration Committee, a nonprofit committee formed in 1994 that hosts an annual Senior Celebration event for the senior class at Pentucket. Each year, the event offers a substance free, chaperoned, all-night opportunity for seniors to celebrate their graduation together.

Whether or not the event may still happen this year has yet to be determined, pending further guidance from the state on social distancing. In the meantime, the Pentucket Parent Alliance Senior Celebration Committee seized the opportunity to coordinate a parade in partnership with the district while delivering signs to recognize seniors.

“Our seniors deserve to be celebrated and to fully feel the joy and sense of accomplishment that comes with graduating from high school,” Bartholomew said. “I’d like to thank everyone who made this parade possible and those who volunteered to take part in it to help recognize our graduates.”

Participants in the parade adhered closely to social distancing guidelines for the duration of the event, including wearing face coverings. Administrators and volunteers visited the residence of each senior and students were given a free lawn sign which reads “Proud Supporter of a Pentucket High School Class of 2020 Senior #inthistogether,” a T-shirt which reads “Pentucket 2020 senior #inthistogether” and gift certificate for a free ice cream donated by Long Hill Orchard and Farm in West Newbury.

“It just warms my heart, being the parent of a senior, to see the support of the district and all three towns for this parade,” said Julie Conover, a member of the Pentucket Parent Alliance Senior Celebration Committee. “This is a big milestone for the Class of 2020 and we knew this was an opportunity to surprise and celebrate the senior class in a meaningful way that lets them know we’re thinking about them but also in a safe, organized manner.”

The T-shirts, lawn signs and banners on the buses were designed by Johanna Tolman, a volunteer and paid for by fundraisers the Pentucket Parent Alliance Senior Celebration Committee held earlier this year as well as donations.

Salter Transportation donated a school bus and driver for each town’s parade and mapped out the bus routes. The Institution for Savings of Newbury, Karol Flannery of William Raveis Real Estate and Cindy Adams, of Long Hill Orchard and the Big Scoop, all donated financially to support the event as well.

The Class of 2020 graduation ceremony is scheduled to take place June 6 and Pentucket High School and district administrators are working with student leaders, parents and guardians to develop ways to celebrate the senior class that adhere to the evolving social distancing guidelines and standards being set by the state. Additional information will be shared with students and their families about the ceremony as it becomes available.

Food distribution for Winchendon students to continue as long as needed

Superintendent of Schools Joan Landers said that the people and buses from First Student Inc. and Van Pool Transportation have been wonderful as the weeks have gone by during the coronavirus shutdown, thanks to their participation in food distribution Monday through Friday for local students and families.

First Student delivers food to six locations throughout town. Someone from a family meets the bus and receives breakfast and lunches for their children at one of those six sites. Many of the school district’s staff help disperse the bags, and it is accomplished even though smiles are hidden by masks and the time is limited.

Then there are the families that have no way to get to those six distribution sites.

Van Pool Transportation works with the superintendent on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday in delivering food to students and their families who do not have a way to make it to the designated locations for distribution.

Plus, on Wednesdays, Heywood Healthcare’s Mary Gianetti comes with food, and Growing Places from Leominster provides fresh-grown vegetables for 85-90 families. That food is packed and delivered to student residences throughout the town by Van Pool. They even make sure the holidays are covered.

Landers calls Van Pool driver Bill Leger of Templeton “the guardian angel of families” because he is sweet to all as he packs and delivers food to homes.

Leger said that he stepped forward to drive the van as soon as Van Pool Transportation put out a notice. For the last several weeks Leger has shown up to Toy Town, packed up the van, and is usually done before lunch.

Leger said he does not do the work for money but does it because he loves the students.

“If I wasn’t driving Van Pool’s van, I would jump in my own truck to do it on my own gas,” he said.

Leger drives special needs students throughout the year, noting some days they have a really good time. He has been working for Van Pool Transportation for 11 years as of May.

Not long after Leger retired, his wife was leaving for work and turned around to ask him what he was going to do that day. After thinking a moment, he replied, “I don’t like retirement. I think I am going to look for a job.”

When he saw Van Pool Transportation vehicle drive by, he followed it back to the office, filled out an application and was hired.

Leger said there were difficult kids and tough routes, but added that Van Pool is the greatest company he has ever come across. He explained that any driver having a hard time with a student just calls in, and everyone in the office becomes focused on how to make it work.

Their motto is, ‘Whatever it takes,’” said Leger.

Van Pool Transportation President and CEO of Kevin Hinkamper and Westley Richters, chief operations officer, spoke of why Van Pool has stepped up to help distribute food and educational supplies to the district.

Hinkamper said that Van Pool is a special transportation vendor for many districts in Massachusetts.

“We serve many of the communities and towns, and have been serving them for over 30 years,” said Hinkamper.

He said that this is not the first time the company has helped the community in tough times.

“When the tornado hit in 2011, we responded by serving the community in the southern part of the state around Springfield, really pitching in and volunteering … doing whatever was needed to be done,” said Hinkamper. “We have done it in ice storms, and even the gas explosions up in Lawrence through one of our other companies. It is something we have practiced for quite some time.”

Richters said they began planning with the school districts knowing there were going to be some impacts.

“We reached out to all of our community partners and offered assistance in any way we could,” Richters explained. “We knew there would be a need for education materials to get to several of the students. We have plenty of vans, so we offered the help to our communities and several communities showed an interest.”

Van Pool Transportation has been organizing and working with the superintendent’s office delivering food and education materials such as books and laptops. It is using drivers who have already been serving these communities, so they know the 47-plus miles of back roads.

“They all offered, and they come each day ready and willing to make these deliveries,” said Richter.

Hinkamper said that one of the things he felt was important was learning the protocol to make sure that the employees and people they were serving were safe.

“That changes based on the need,” he said. “By the nature of the work we do, the drivers are very experienced and knowledgeable about the community. It just becomes part of a routine for us to adapt from transporting students to transporting meals.”

Richter said there has been a great response from communities. People have been helpful and excited about the services provided.

Hinkamper added that Van Pool Transportation will be able to supply help indefinitely.

“We are hoping that it (health crisis) doesn’t last much longer than what it is, but we have been working with our districts for over 30 years. We are a well-established company so we feel pretty strongly that we can support the community as long as the community needs supporting,” he said.

Landers said that those who are in need of food can call her at the superintendent’s office at 978-616-1452.

“I am there every day,” she said.

People can also email her at All they have to do is leave a phone number, and the superintendent will contact them.

Van Pool helping get supplies, meals to students

Even though schools will remain closed for the remainder of the year, a western Massachusetts transportation company is putting their empty vehicles to good use.

In partnership with local school districts, they are delivering supplies and meals to students in need.

Like many companies facing the ever-changing world of coronavirus, Van Pool Transportation has transformed their business model to fit the needs of the community.

“In mid-March, when everything started to unfold, we reached out to our many school districts including those in the Pioneer Valley and offered our services in any way possible,” said Kevin Hinkamper, president and CEO of Van Pool.

Hinkamper said they found the greatest need was helping school districts get supplies and meals to students who don’t have a way to get to pick-up locations.

“For those that are not able to get to the schools, the district will give us specific addresses, so we can reach each of the individual families,” said Franco Indomenico, VP of operations of Van Pool.

Indomenico said the company has set times they arrive at bus stops around the city for students to pick-up these supplies.

“Whether it’s food or these educational laptops are receiving…the feedback that we’re getting for my drivers, who are out there, is pretty rewarding,” Indomenico added.

Although this specific service is new, they said this isn’t the first time Van Pool has transformed into a makeshift delivery service.

“We do have a history of doing this before, specifically with the school district during the tornado. We also work for them during the gas explosions. We also worked with them during water main breaks,” Hinkamper explained.

They told Western Mass News that now school has been moved online for the rest of the year, their service will continue.

“I think in the next few weeks, we will actually be adding additional services as they become evident. We’re doing this in over 20 communities across the Commonwealth. The feedback has been very, very positive,” Hinkamper added.

In western Massachusetts right now, they are only delivering laptops and supplies to the Springfield school district, but will soon expand.

Their meal service, however, is already covering more of the area.

“In addition to Springfield, we have been doing food services in other communities including Holyoke, Belchertown, and the Quabbin Regional Schools District,” Indomenico noted.

Hinkamper added, “As partners with our schools and communities…we have a long-standing tradition of doing whatever it takes.”

As long as their buses aren’t carrying students, they’ll continue to help.

“As long as we’re in this together…we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing,” Hinkamper said.

School bus drivers delivering meals for families along routes

School buses are still on the go during the pandemic, delivering tens of thousands of meals to students and their families.

Schools may be closed, but bus driver Paul King is still heading out on his regular route in Marlborough. His stops during a pandemic now serve a new purpose — delivering meals.

“This job is all joy for me,” he said.

In Marlborough, bus drivers like King, have already helped deliver more than 70,000 meals to students and their families.

“A lot of these families can’t get to schools to pick up food, so they rely on us,” he said.

But the stops are more than a service, they’re about smiles. Parents say seeing a familiar face provides some much needed normalcy.

“It teaches the kids a sense of community, and it’s great for them since school is out until the end of the year. They love seeing him, gives them a sense of normalcy reminds them of school,” one mom said.

“You get to see our bus driver on Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” said student Chase. “It’s just fun seeing him.”

The effort is made possible with a mix of volunteers and school workers meeting a demand that is greater than during the school year.

“I’m hoping this helps, gives the kids a connection. We miss them. I’m sure they miss us,” said cafeteria manager Laurel Butler.

The program is not just in Marlborough. The bus company, North Reading Transportation, Is doing the same in more than a dozen communities.

“All these bus drivers are here, it’s not a money thing, it’s a love thing,” King said.