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Massachusetts governor deploys state's national guard to assist with bus driver shortage

90 Massachusetts National Guard members begin training Tuesday in four cities, Gov. Charlie Baker announced.
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Dozens of Massachusetts National Guard members will begin training Tuesday in four cities to alleviate the state’s bus driver shortage, Gov. Charlie Baker announced this week.

Baker’s order will send 90 Guard members to Chelsea, Lowell, Lawrence and Lynn to serve as drivers, the governor announced in a statement Monday.

“These Guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans known as 7D vehicles to address staffing shortages in certain districts,” the statement said.

Baker’s order makes up to 250 Guard members available, according to the announcement.

“As with any school transportation worker, all activated Guard personnel will complete vehicle training to ensure the safety of children and families. Drivers will meet all statutory requirements for 7D drivers. Throughout the mission, the Guard will comply with all health and safety measures. The mission will not interfere with the Massachusetts National Guard’s ability to respond to and assist in emergencies within the Commonwealth,” the statement read.

Baker tweeted Monday, “The safe and reliable transportation to school each day is critical to our children's safety and education.”

Chelsea is about 4.5 miles northeast of Boston, while Lynn is about 12 miles north of the state capital. Lowell and Lawrence are both about 30 miles north of Boston in the region’s Merrimack Valley.

NBC Boston reported Lowell schools Superintendent Joel Boyd said in a statement that 15 Guard members will be available by the end of the week and they will be work until the district hires enough permanent drivers to fill the vacancies.

"The shortage of school bus drivers has been a challenge for school districts across the country this year. 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 Governor Baker's partnership," Boyd said.

Baker also offered Guard members to Boston, but city officials said they didn’t want them right away.

Boston Mayor Kim Janey said the vast majority of buses arrived within 15 minutes of the start of school on Monday, NBC Boston reported.

The news outlet also reported that under state law, 7D vehicles can carry no more than 10 passengers and must weigh under 10,000 pounds.

Drivers must have a special certificate, and Monday's announcement noted that members of the Guard working on this mission "will meet all statutory requirements for 7D drivers."

School districts around the country have been contending with the school bus driver shortage, which hindered the start of the school year in Boston, NBC Boston reported.

The Boston school bus drivers' union had pushed to postpone the start of school the year, calling the situation "the worst fiasco we've witnessed in our careers,” per the NBC Boston report. The union said the district gave them more than 100 additional routes than they've had in prior years at the last minute.

The driver shortfall isn’t new, but a labor shortage across many sectors and the pandemic’s lingering effects have made it worse, since about half the workforce was over 65 and more vulnerable to the virus, said Joanna McFarland, co-founder and CEO of school ride-service company HopSkipDrive, which tracks school bus issues.

And it’s not just Massachusetts feeling the pinch from a lack of bus drivers.

Schools throughout the country are offering hiring bonuses, increasing hourly pay and providing training to secure commercial driver’s licenses.The issue is just another obstacle district officials are contending with while battling to keep campuses open amid the highly contagious delta variant of Covid-19.

A Montana school district dangled $4,000 bonuses and invited people to test drive school buses in hopes of enticing them to take the job. A Delaware school district offered to pay parents $700 to take care of their own transportation, and a Pittsburgh district delayed the start of classes and said hundreds more children would have to walk to school.