SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM, Aug. 29) – This week marks the first day of school for many across western Massachusetts. We know the pandemic worsened the nationwide school bus driver shortage and last school year, some districts faced bus route delays because of it.
“I kind of looked at it and I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve driven a mom van before, so it’s a bus,” said Holly Bartolon, a school bus driver with Travel Kuz.
Bartolon’s search for a part-time, flexible job resulted in the mom of three climbing into the front seat of a school bus.
“I actually received a flyer from my kid’s school that said, ‘Hey, we need school bus drivers’ and I went, ‘Okay, why not?’” Bartolon explained.
Bartolon is one of 17 new bus drivers at Travel Kuz, which serves schools in Franklin County. One of the owners, Pam Reipold, told Western Mass News the new hires come after COVID-19 amplified an existing issue.
“Recruiting is always something that we do here, even pre-pandemic because there’s been a school driver shortage for a lot longer than the last couple of years,” Reipold added.
Reipold told us many bus drivers are retirees and chose not to return to work amid the pandemic.
“Across the country, there’s still a 10 percent driver shortage, but fortunately for us out here in western Mass., we’re prepared to start the school year with all of our routes covered and drivers for all those routes,” said Peter Delani, director of customer relations with Van Pool Transportation.
At a training event a few weeks ago in Springfield, Western Mass News caught up with Van Pool, which transports students with special needs in 30 local districts. The 100 new drivers are taught technical aspects as well as how to provide for students’ social and emotional needs.
“We have the first and the last opportunity each day as we bring kids to school and bring them home from school to make a difference in their lives,” Delani added.
Back at Travel Kuz, Bartolon has her first passenger: her daughter, Marisol, who will ride her mom’s bus to first grade this year.
“You can bring your toddlers on the bus with you, so you don’t have to pay for daycare. It’s a really great schedule. When there’s a snow day, you never have to worry about what to do with your own kids right because you’re generally home,” Reipold explained.
Students in Franklin County will be heading back to school Tuesday and Wednesday and 140 of Travel Kuz’s buses will be rolling out of the lot, so Travel Kuz is reminding drivers to be on the lookout.
“If you see a yellow bus driving around your neighborhood, you’ve got to assume that it’s going to stop,” Reipold noted.
She asked that parents have patience with bus drivers this week, who like Bartolon, will be learning a new route, and meeting new kids.
“To have people who want to do this and love being with the kids is, personally for me as a mom, is just so important,” Bartolon said.
Starting pay for a bus driver at Travel Kuz is $24 an hour and benefits include healthcare and retirement.