The Human Element: Making things better for employees, customers

On April 26, School Transportation News rolled out a podcast, featuring Beacon Mobility CEO Judith Crawford.

During the podcast, the discussion revolved around the importance of training and partnerships, marketplace trends, and how to maximize support for both her team and the school districts that Beacon serves.

Listen in on the podcast, to learn how the company seeks to make things better for employees as well as its customers.


Welcome back to school. Your new driver is wearing fatigues.

CHELSEA, Mass. — When Sgt. Phillip Hickman served as the crew chief on a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, he was responsible for maintaining the aircraft, firing a mounted weapon and overseeing everyone on board.

His current mission involves a different kind of cargo: middle-schoolers.

On a recent afternoon, Hickman was sitting behind the wheel of a silver school transport van wearing fatigues and a matching face mask. The dismissal bell was about to ring.

“I’m used to manifests and moving people around,” said Hickman, 36. But this “is the last thing I expected.”

Hickman is part of an unusual and unprecedented assignment. Faced with a shortage of school bus drivers, Massachusetts has deployed more than 200 members of the National Guard to help nine communities get their kids to school. People with knowledge of National Guard missions in the state say they can’t recall another time when soldiers have played this kind of role.

While Massachusetts is the only state to take such a step, the scarcity of bus drivers is impacting school districts across the country, leading to transportation delays, the disruption of extracurricular activities and even the suspension of in-person learning in a handful of cases.

The sight of men and women in uniform driving children to school highlights the profound ways the pandemic is reshaping the U.S. economy. There are shortages of workers in restaurants, hotels, day cares and nursing homes. The supply chain remains warped. But at the same time, new businesses have opened up at a record clip.

“The pandemic is so counterintuitive and paradoxical,” said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Economists are racing to understand the labor shortage, he said, but the most prevalent explanations — that government aid and uncertainties around child care have diminished the willingness to work — are not yet supported by data.

Autor believes many workers are simply changing tracks. Some people “have realized, ‘Wow, those jobs are more terrible than I realized,’ and they’re trying to switch to new activities,’” he said.

To deal with the shortage of school bus drivers, communities and businesses have had to improvise. School bus companies are offering free training and thousands of dollars in sign-on bonuses to attract recruits, whose wages can range from $16 to $30 an hour. Some states, like New York, have tried to speed up the licensing process for drivers. Philadelphia is offering parents $300 a month to drive their own kids to and from school.

Mirna Ardon lives in Chelsea, a tiny, densely populated city just north of Boston. She said her 14-year-old son Angel didn’t have reliable transportation for weeks — the bus was late or didn’t show up, and her husband couldn’t keep dropping off their son without losing hours and pay at his job.

Angel, who is autistic, struggles with interruptions to his routine. “The unreliability was making everyone agitated,” said Ardon, 44.

The first time Ardon saw a soldier behind the wheel of her son’s school transport van, she was relieved. The National Guard had been present in the community during the crushing first wave of the pandemic, distributing food and helping her neighbors. “There was trust and respect there,” she said.

On a recent Saturday morning, 27 members of the National Guard gathered at dawn in the parking lot of a Sheraton hotel near Boston. They practiced how to turn on a school bus’ stop sign, operate its wheelchair lifts and conduct the all-important post-drive walk through to ensure that no kids are left behind on the bus.

Later in the morning, an instructor congratulated them on passing their written tests and issued a final, crucial reminder: always make sure kids have someone waiting for them when they get off the bus.

John McCarthy, the chief executive of NRT Bus, was overseeing the training. Even before the pandemic, the school bus industry was scrambling for workers, McCarthy said. But he’s never seen anything like this. As September approached, his normal workforce — about 3,700 drivers — was down 15 percent.

Some of those who had left were older workers who decided to retire or didn’t want to risk possible infection. Other people took new jobs during the long months while kids were doing remote learning — jobs such as delivering packages for Amazon and UPS. “We’re all fishing from the same fishing hole,” said McCarthy. (Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, owns The Washington Post).

McCarthy emptied out his own offices to lend a hand with the shortage, putting managers and dispatchers behind the wheel. Often that has left just one person in each of the company’s locations. “Everybody else is driving,” said McCarthy. “It’s been a very stressful time.” He added that the firm has seen an uptick in recruits in recent weeks, giving him some hope that the acute shortage won’t last forever.

In New York, the situation is similar. David Christopher, executive director of the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, estimated that there were about 55,000 school bus drivers in the state before the pandemic and 15 to 20 percent of them have left the profession. “It’s the aging driving force, it’s the pandemic, it’s the availability of other kinds of jobs,” Christopher said.

Many school districts are finding ways to manage with fewer drivers, but if something goes awry, the consequences can be dramatic. Melinda Smith, superintendent of Thompson Public Schools in Connecticut, received a phone call early on a Sunday morning last month telling her that half of the district’s bus drivers had either tested positive for the coronavirus or were in quarantine.

Normally, she said, the bus company could pull substitute drivers from other locations. This time it was impossible. Unable to transport children, the district had to return its nearly 1,000 students to remote learning over a two-week period.

“This is the first time in my career that this has ever happened, that we can’t get kids to school,” said Thompson, who has worked in education for 40 years.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) authorized the deployment of up to 250 National Guard members to help drive children to school on Sept. 13.

At least nine cities are receiving assistance, including Chelsea, Lawrence, Lynn, Holyoke and Framingham. Timothy McGuirk, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, declined to say whether more cities would join them or how long the help would last. “We are just focusing on the mission,” he said.

That mission, called “Children First,” has soldiers driving various types of vans to transport children to school, rather than regular buses. That’s because such vans require what is known in Massachusetts as a “7D” license that is relatively easy to obtain. To drive a large school bus, a person needs a commercial driver’s license, which can take weeks.

In Chelsea, schools superintendent Almudena Abeyta initially hesitated to bring in National Guard members as drivers. Chelsea is a majority Latino community with a large immigrant population and Abeyta wondered how parents “would feel if someone in uniform picks up their child for school.” But after conferring with other city officials, she said yes.

When the school year started, Abeyta’s office had been flooded with calls from parents saying their kids were arriving to class late, or took forever to get home, or the bus never came.Some people might say that the situation isn’t an emergency, she said. But “educating children and getting them to school on time, in my opinion, is worth the National Guard coming in.”

On a recent cloudy afternoon, three soldiers arrived in quick succession and parked their vans outside the front entrance of the Morris H. Seigal Clark Avenue School in Chelsea.

Richard Gibbs, 23, was sitting behind the wheel of a red van with a bus monitor at his side. These days he rises by 4 a.m., drives his van from Camp Curtis Guild in Reading, picks up the bus monitor and two rounds of children, then returns by around 9 a.m. — before doing it all again in the afternoon.

A boy arrived carrying a black backpack, a sweatshirt tied around his waist. He bumped fists with Gibbs, then climbed into the back of the van and fastened his seat belt. “They’re great kids,” Gibbs said.

A few vehicles down, Hickman, the former helicopter crew chief, leaned out the driver’s side window to review a list of students with the school’s special education coordinator. He said that the kids have adjusted to their new driver with a minimum of fuss.

Only rarely does a student ask him about being a soldier. Instead, Hickman said, they just want to know “why they aren’t home yet.”

Mass. National Guard steps in to aid in school transportation

READING – It usually takes longer than one day to become a school bus driver but more than 60 members of the Massachusetts National Guard were able to go through the entire process Tuesday at Camp Curtis Guild and they’ll be ready to hit the streets this week.

Sixty-seven members of the National Guard left Camp Curtis Guild with a new 7D certification in hand and will begin bus routes throughout Lowell, Chelsea and Lynn as early as Thursday.

(On Sept. 14) we had 75 members come out and 67 passed that course, which was great,” NRT Bus CEO John McCarthy said. “These folks will be in uniform, meeting kids just like bus drivers do, bringing them to school, so they’re really excited about this mission.”

John McCarthy is the CEO of NRT Bus – which provides transportation for students throughout Massachusetts and is working to train National Guard members.

“They’re very positive about taking children to school, they think it’s a unique opportunity to connect with the community in a different way,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said members started the day at 7:30 a.m. and went through fingerprinting, classroom exams and road tests, all to help the state deal with a shortage of bus drivers. NRT Bus reports it was down 350 employees three weeks ago but said the National Guard will be able to fill the void as they recruit new drivers.

“These folks went on and found other jobs,” McCarthy said. “We also had a little bit of a challenge with the unemployment being extended to where it is but we’re seeing a lot of candidates come in through the door now.”

McCarthy said another 65 service members will be training for their 7D certification Wednesday at Camp Curtis Guild and they’re set to begin helping the Lawrence school district on Monday.

She’s in the driver’s seat and the kids love it

DRACUT — From the driver’s seat of the school bus she’s driven here for nearly a half a century now, Ginger Caggiano has been a dutiful, gasoline-powered lesson in longevity, dedication, and street-smart diplomacy.

She’s the smiling fixture behind the wheel, opening her yellow doors to generations of children who have used crayons and pencils to send her messages of gratitude.

She’s seen hemlines rise and fall.

She’s seen haircuts morph from buzz cuts to shoulder-length. And back.

She’s scolded bullies and comforted scared little kids dressed in fresh new clothes on their way to their first day of school.

At 81, as another school year has arrived, she has tended her garden, doted on her flowers, and savored the summer sun.

And now it’s time to start up her school bus again.

“It’s a great excitement for me,’’ she told me as we sat on her bus at the transportation company yard here the other day. “It’s just a tradition. All my life, I’ve just enjoyed it. I love the first day of school. If I couldn’t be behind the wheel on the first day, I’d be so sad.’’

So would all those little school kids. So would their teary-eyed parents, who kiss them goodbye. So would her co-workers for whom she is both role model and a kind of transportation den mother.

And legend.

“It takes a special person to do what she does,’’ said John J. McCarthy, the chief executive of Trombly Motor Coach Service Inc. “School bus drivers don’t grow on trees. She really is a gift to the industry. And she’s a great driver.’’

“She cares,’’ agreed Lynda Cruz, the bus terminal manager. “That’s huge. She is here every day. She cares about the kids. And that’s the important part.’’

Virginia Caggiano learned that lesson early in her life. You could say it’s in her blood.

She was raised in Boston. Her father drove a big rig truck and eventually moved the family to Everett, where Virginia graduated from high school in 1957.

“I walked to school,’’ she said. “No bus for me.’’

Eventually, after a 10-year stint in the underwriting department for John Hancock Life Insurance Co. where she started work in 1957, she married, moved from Everett to Dracut, and joined a summer softball league team.

“So, these softball players drove school buses and some of them came in and said to me: ‘Would you like to train?’ ‘’ she recalled.

Well, yes, she told them. Sign me up.

And that’s why generations of school kids here learned to greet “Ginger,’’ each morning, a name that was inadvertently shortened by a niece for whom “Virginia” was just too much of a mouthful.

“So, for years, everybody here at the bus company calls me Ginger,’’ she said.

They call her other things too. Professional. Patient. A skilled school bus driver with genuine heart.

“She’s been doing it since I was 3 years old,’’ said her daughter, 51-year-old Lynda Caggiano. “I remember being a little girl and going with her on the bus. She loves the kids. She loves the people. My mother is a very people person.’’

That’s a prerequisite for a job behind the wheel with precious cargo wearing backpacks, staring back at you in that big mirror above the driver’s seat.

“You have to learn how to park,’’ she said. “You have to back up. You have to always watch your mirrors. Those mirrors are your guide. You always have to see what’s going on. You have to watch the kids.

“You have to have four eyes really. You’ve got to watch everything going on.’’

And as the miles — and the years — pass behind you on all those trips to school, you learn to develop a special set of street smarts.

“You have to have patience,’’ she said. “That’s the main thing. Patience. Be kind. Be a good listener. And make friends with the worst kid on the bus. And I used to have some really rough ones.’’

But, she said, kids are kids. Treat them as you’d like to be treated. And the bus will calm down.

“My whole outlook is that if you have a bad kid, they’re not really bad,’’ she said. “They’re just showing off. And I always had a way about me that kids remember me, especially the worst ones. I meet them on the street — even now to this day — and they come by my house now for Halloween with their own kids.’’

Hi, Ginger. Trick or treat?

Mostly it’s been a treat for Virginia Caggiano, who started out earning $3 an hour, a wage that across the decades has grown to $22 an hour.

There have been some unsettling bumps along the way.

She’s an ovarian cancer survivor.

She’s also a survivor of a head-on crash by a driver who, she said, was impaired — an incident that occurred years ago.

She’s dutifully obeyed the careful protocols brought on by the COVID pandemic.

When she’s behind the wheel, she adopts a no-nonsense persona.

She won’t put up with foul language.

She won’t tolerate any behavior that would imperil the kids seated behind her.

She used to drive a 47-foot bus. But her cargo is no less precious on the smaller bus she drives now.

“She was the one who ultimately said she was going to drive a smaller bus,’’ McCarthy said. “She made that decision. She knows what her capabilities are. And she knows her limitations.’’

And she knows how the parents feel on these first days of school — a mixture of relief and anxiety. The need to linger just a bit before saying goodbye, trusting their children to the kindly, smiling woman behind the wheel.

“Sometimes it’s hard for some of the kids to let loose of the parent,’’ she said. “So, I have to help them on the bus and tell them what a wonderful day they’re going to have. And I put them in the seat.’’

And then it’s time to sit behind the wheel, fasten the seat belt, and guide the yellow bus to the schoolhouse door.

And when school’s out, there are frequent reminders about this special bond formed on that yellow bus.

“All the time,’’ she said. “I’m in Hannaford or I’m in Market Basket and the kids will say, ‘Mom! That’s Ginger over there! Let’s go see her!’

“I can hear them and it’s great. It really is. On Halloween I have a big display in front of my house and in my garage and they come from all over. They know Ginger’s the place for Halloween. And they come to see me.

“And I see the parents of kids used to drive. Grandparents I used to drive. Yeah. We’re going way back. And it’s a good feeling.’’

Summer’s over. Fall is in the air.

And the schoolhouse door has swung open again.

And Ginger Caggiano, that kindly woman behind the wheel, is ready to take her kids to the place where the teachers take over.



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.