Hundreds of school bus drivers might not show up for work on Monday, the deadline for state employees and education workers to be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 weekly.
About 227 bus drivers at some of the state’s largest bus companies are refusing to get vaccinated or take the tests, according to the Connecticut School Transportation Association.
The “drivers will walk out the door after work on Friday, leaving 227 buses idle,” wrote transportation lobbyist Jean Cronin in a letter to the state Department of Education.
“The school bus driver shortage will become 10 times worse” on Monday, Cronin wrote. “The state of Connecticut has just created the perfect storm for school bus drivers.”
Steve Gardner, a general manager at All-Star Transportation — a bus company that services 35 towns and cities in Litchfield, Fairfield and New Haven counties — said that 25% of its total employees are unvaccinated and estimates that 5-10% do not want to get tested either, adding that unvaccinated drivers are concerned about the inconvenience and cost of testing.
“We’re already scrambling and working hard to get these kids to school because we’re so short,” he said. “Our managers and safety people and our operations staff are all out driving school buses. And now the state adds on more responsibility for these people. And it’s too much.”
Some employees have changed their minds between Thursday and Friday, Gardner said. “Some people are now saying, ‘Well, I don’t want to be without a job or not be able to work. So, I changed my mind, I want to get tested weekly,’ which is a good thing.”
He also explained that he’s been in touch with superintendents to tell them how many bus drivers are not going to test.
“Any substitute driver we have, they’re out there driving every day already,” Gardner said. “So come Monday, if there’s drivers that won’t test, then they will be off the road, and there will be nobody to cover that route.”
Gov. Ned Lamont has said in recent days that school bus driver positions have been hard to fill, and he would be willing to deploy the National Guard to help. However, during a Thursday press conference, he said no districts made a request yet and that they are in “active discussions with the bus drivers.”
“We’ve done everything to accelerate getting additional bus drivers in place,” Lamont said. “I can tell you we have some health care drivers, they’ll be able to step in and help for some of those kids with special needs that can’t drive the school buses but they can do that as well.”
Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, said they have “all the state agencies responsible for approving new bus drivers” expediting new requests for drivers that come through.
“We’re providing support across a number of different districts, and we are on call to do everything we can to help,” he said. “But we do know that some districts are very concerned about disruptions early next week, but we’re definitely hoping to avoid that.”
Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said that with an existing bus driver shortage and school buses being much more crowded in some districts than they would like, the shortage is only going to increase now that some drivers are not getting vaccinated or tested.
“If they’re not going to test and they’re not going to vaccinate, we’re going to lose additional drivers,” she said. “But I think we can’t allow anyone to be with our children [if they’re not vaccinated or testing]. Safety is the first issue, so we have to ensure that they’re either vaccinated or testing.”
But Gardner said that bus companies feel their employees should be exempted from the mandate because “we don’t go into schools.”
He explained that buses allow for social distancing, are easy to sanitize, have greater ventilation because of open windows, and exposure to students is minimal since the students walk in and go directly to their seats.
“We didn’t have a problem last year. We transported students to the school and back home last year without a vaccine,” Gardner said. “Our drivers did not transmit it to one single student in all the towns that we serve. And neither did a single student transmit it to a driver.”
Gardner also said they are hoping to get an extension on complying with vaccine requirements since they received the updated executive order last Friday and did not have a lot of time to come up with a plan to get everyone tested.
Additionally, he said, All-Star wants to be allowed to have COVID testing available at bus company sites, at state bus lots or at the schools.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about the kids. They need to get to school. They need that socialization, and we really want the kids to be in school,” Gardner said. “But if we have to take another hit with the loss of drivers, it’s going to significantly impact our ability to get kids to school and back home.”
Not all districts are as concerned about the mandate’s impact.
John Fergus, Director of Communications for Hartford Public Schools, said the district has been in close contact with its bus vendor, Autumn Transportation, and does not expect any disruptions. The company’s general manager told the district that only “a handful” of drivers are pushing back against testing requirements.
“He feels cautiously optimistic that if there is a little flux there we’re going to be able to work around that,” said Fergus.
The deadline to be vaccinated is also approaching for teachers and other staff who work in schools. A recent survey of nearly 1,000 educators by the Connecticut Education Association found that 89% had been fully or partially vaccinated. Among those who were not vaccinated, it is unclear if they plan to participate in weekly testing.
State employees also are required to be tested or vaccinated. Health care workers are also required, and some have been holding rallies against the requirement.
Correction: A previous version of this story unclearly reported the state’s vaccine and testing requirements for state workers. State employees who work from home are not exempt from the mandate.