As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, holding in-school instruction is not only affecting the classrooms across America, but also the school districts’ busing systems.
According to a national survey, more than half of the country’s school districts are reporting either a “severe” or “desperate” driver shortage.
Driver Shortages Country-Wide
This shortage of drivers is a country-wide issue where bus drivers either retired during the pandemic, are worried about transportation of potentially infected children, calling out sick, or must quarantine after an exposure on the bus. Additionally, to become a bus driver, you must obtain a commercial driver’s license, which can take several weeks/months of training. As there are so few applicants, this driver and transportation issue has the potential to last the whole year.
The current, daily unpredictability of the school districts’ bussing system creates a significant problem and burden on parents and families, because when a school calls in the morning to say the bus is not coming, parents must quickly find different options and rearrange their morning schedules in order to find a way to get their child to school.
With a shortage of bus drivers, school districts must understand their specific obligations to provide transportation for resident public and non-public students, as well as charter students.
While the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has not issued any specific guidance on this issue, we can turn to specific Pennsylvania laws and/or relevant PDE guidance that existed prior to the pandemic. It is important to note the Public School Code distinguishes between district students, nonpublic school students, and charter school students, and this distinction is important in analyzing the issues regarding a school district’s transportation services obligations.
Under 24 P.S. §13-1361 and 24 P.S.§17-1726-A, apart from charter school students, Pennsylvania law does not require a school district to provide transportation to resident students.
However, when a school district provides transportation for its students, it must provide identical transportation services to non-public students of the same grade level that it is providing for their own students. While the transportation services provided to District students and non-public student must be identical, the District is not required to provide “superior” transportation to non-public school students.
Alternatively, as it relates to charter school students, the Public School Code mandates that transportation services be provided. Specifically, the charter school law states that “students who attend a charter school . . . . shall be provided free transportation to the charter school by their school district of residence on such dates and periods that the charter school is in regular session” if: 1) the charter school is located within the school district, 2) the charter school is located not more than 10 miles by the nearest public highway, or 3) the charter school is a regional charter school in which the school district participates. 24 P.S. §17-1726-A.
The charter school law does not include the same “identical” services language found in Section 1361 that applies to nonpublic schools. However, Section 17-1726-A does suggest a requirement of similar services when it requires districts to transport students living within 1.5 to 2 miles of their school if the district provides transportation to its own students under those circumstances.
It is important to note, along with charter school students, school districts are also obligated to provide transportation to special education students, regardless of their transportation services for public and non-public students.
Bottom Line for Schools
There is no doubt that school districts around the country are currently facing a shortage of bus drivers. Whether the reason stems from the pandemic, an increasing number of retirees, lack of resources and time to train drivers, or competitive pay in other transportation industries, school districts do have options varying from implementing sign-on and retention bonuses for new bus drivers, providing stipends for parents who have to transport their children to school as an alternative, asking parents to give up their children’s seats on busses, reducing the frequency of bus routes, or shortening the school day.
A district has some discretion as it relates to the provision of transportation services to resident students. However, School Districts must remember that regardless of a school district’s transportation services for public and non-public students, the must provide transportation services to charter students, or they will be in violation of Section 17-1726-A. This statute provides that PDE shall pay the charter school directly for costs incurred in the transportation and deduct the amount paid to the charter school from any payments made to the district.
If you have a question, please contact your legal counsel or one of the education attorneys at KingSpry.
School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. This article is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.