The shortage predates the COVID-19 pandemic, but school closures and layoffs didn't help in 2020.
Now employers are offering sign-on bonuses as school districts are scrambling and rearranging bell schedules to make it all work.
"We're off about 30%," said Steve Laputka.
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Laputka is the operations manager at Philly Transportation LLC, contracted to transport thousands of students. It's offering signing bonuses, medical and 401K benefits.
"Please, I need applicants!" said Laputka.
The New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association has seen a steep drop off, estimating 20% of drivers have not returned after layoffs because of COVID closures.
"This week, the extended unemployment benefits have expired and it may be a little push for somebody who would like to return to the workforce," said Evie Wills, an administrator with the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association.
To make it all work, Burlington Township School District in New Jersey issued an emergency contract to rent 24 buses for the month of September and hire 12 additional drivers. Now each bus transports three to four different groups of students.
"I was in our high school this morning at 7:15 a.m. and we had students dropped off and we were housing them so that the bus could go out and pick up more students," said Mary Ann Bell, the superintendent with the Burlington Township School District.
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At stake now, for many districts, is transportation to extracurricular activities because of scheduling conflicts.
"The field trips and sports trips, we're kind of having to put them by the wayside," said Steve Laputka.
One issue is the time it takes to screen and train each applicant, with special licenses and background checks, it's estimated to take up to two months. Those are qualifications no one is willing to overlook.
Some school districts like Philadelphia, are offering families who opt out of transportation services up to $150 a month.