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Gov. Charlie Baker activates National Guard in response to school bus driver shortage

Lowell school bus on Aiken Street. Julia Malakie/Lowell Sun
Lowell school bus on Aiken Street. Julia Malakie/Lowell Sun
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LOWELL — Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday activated the state National Guard to drive students to school in those communities where a school bus driver shortage is being felt, including Lowell.

Superintendent Joel Boyd said late Monday the shortage of school bus drivers has been a challenge for school districts across the country.

“We have been working together with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to come up with solutions to transport students safely to and from school each day. We are thankful for Gov. Baker’s partnership, and with the governor’s support, we anticipate 15 National Guardsmen sent to Lowell to transport students in 7D vehicles, which are smaller 10-passenger student transport vans that provide transportation for students who are receiving educational services in specialized programming,” Boyd said.

Boyd said he expects that drivers through the National Guard will be available by the end of the week. The troops will remain in Lowell until driver slots are filled with permanent school bus drivers.

Boyd told parents in a letter the school department will communicate directly with those families whose children will be transported in the vans driven by National Guard troops. Boyd assured parents the School Department will ensure “strict standards of health and safety we require from drivers” will be maintained.

Parents with questions should contact the district’s Transportation Office by calling 978-674-4333 or by submitting an online form at www.lowell.k12.ma.us/contactform.

John Descouteaux, transportation director in Lowell schools, said in nearly three decades overseeing school transportation he has never seen such a crisis. Over the years, school bus driver slots have been taken by retirees and younger people who have a few hours a day to earn some extra money. That demographic, Descouteaux explained, has disappeared.

He applauded the Baker administration, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and NRT, the school department’s transportation company, for working cooperatively to address the crisis.

“Everybody has been great,” Descouteaux said.

Descouteaux anticipated the National Guard will be in the city for about six weeks. Troops will wear camouflage fatigues, but not carry firearms. They are currently being trained and should hit the roads by Thursday or Friday, Descouteaux said.

Descouteaux said the troops will transport special needs students, both to Lowell and to other school districts. Descouteaux wants to ensure parents and caregivers that students with more severe disabilities will be transported by experienced NRT personnel. The troops, he said, will be deployed on routes where students have fewer needs. In some cases, bus monitors will also be used.

Baker’s order will make up to 250 Guard members available to help with school transportation, according to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. Starting with training on Tuesday, 90 members will prepare for service in Chelsea, Lawrence and Lynn as well.

They “will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans known as 7D vehicles to address staffing shortages in certain districts,” public safety officials said.

Guard personnel will complete vehicle training, meet the statutory requirements for 7D drivers, and comply with all health and safety measures, according to the administration.

Federal rules require school bus drivers and passengers to wear masks as a COVID-19 precaution. Baker said the state “offered the services to a number of communities.”

Boston was among those communities and officials there “weren’t interested” at this time but “left the door open to pursue it at some point later on.”

Shortages of school bus drivers have been reported nationally. A joint survey by the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the National School Transportation Association found that 51% of respondents described their driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate” and half said the rate of pay was a major factor affecting their ability to recruit and retain drivers.

Other factors cited included length of time necessary to secure a commercial driver’s license (45%), the availability of benefits (38%) and the hours available to work (38%).

Katie Lannan from the State House News Service contributed to this report.