A school bus on the first day of school this month. Photo: Denise Civiletti

School bus drivers are a hot commodity. There’s a nationwide shortage and the Riverhead school district has been struggling to recruit enough drivers to handle its transportation needs, Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider told the Board of Education Tuesday night.

Schneider said the district is short by at least 10 drivers daily “due to occasional absence, long-term absence, or lack of eligible new employees.” That takes a toll, he said.

“In looking at the effect of the absence of any given day, missing 10 drivers, I would invite you to imagine what it would be like academically if we were missing 10 teachers every single day in the school. It would be academically disastrous,” Schneider said.

The district’s transportation department is responsible for bringing nearly 6,000 students to seven public schools, 12 special education and occupational schools, seven non-public schools and one charter school within the district, Schneider said.

He said the district has been actively searching for drivers throughout the summer and has been running ads in newspapers from Montauk to Huntington.

“What we are experiencing here is not unusual,” Schneider said, drawing attention to a New York Times article on nationwide bus driver shortages and mentioning the dire situation in Massachusetts, where the governor deployed members of the state’s National Guard to train as bus drivers.

Schneider also shared anecdotes from other districts who have struggled during the last week to show that the district isn’t alone in problems because of the staff shortages. 

According to the results of a survey on transportation departments by three national transportation agencies, more than half of respondents described their driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate.” 79% of respondents in the Northeast have altered their transportation services because of the shortage, according to the survey’s results.

“This survey reaffirms individual feedback that we have heard from our members that both in-district and contract school bus operators are facing serious challenges with respect to staffing of the driver pool this fall,” National School Transportation Association Executive Director Curt Macysyn said in a press release.

Anyone interested in driving a school bus for the district, should send a letter of interest to Arlene Durkalski, the RCSD director of personnel, at 700 Osborn Avenue Riverhead N.Y. 11901. Drivers must have a valid and clean NYS driver’s license, with a preference for applicants with a CDL Class B license, air brake, passenger and school bus endorsements. They also must be able to pass a mandatory state driver physical performance test and be on an on-call basis with flexible shifts. The salary starts at $23.14 per hour.

During the first week back to school, the district also experienced challenges due to an increased enrollment of students at the beginning of the year, which threw off bus routes, Schneider said. 

The district has also transitioned to a route system, meaning rather than using a vehicle number to identify which bus a student rides, students will be assigned a route number. The route number is displayed separately on the side of the bus. The route numbers are changeable, so if a particular vehicle is out of commission, students can easily identify what bus to get on based on the route number. Schneider said this new system confused some students in the first week. The district will change this system next year slightly by making the route number be the same as the number of their regular bus. 

The district also notified families about bus routing information this year through automated phone calls only to save on postage and paper. The district has already decided to return to mailing bus route information next year.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.