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Mass. National Guard to Help Take Kids to School Amid Bus Driver Shortage

Ninety members of the guard will begin training on Tuesday for work in Chelsea, Lawrence, Lowell and Lynn; Gov. Baker said Boston officials declined the service for now

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Amid a national school bus driver shortage, the Massachusetts National Guard is being activated to help get kids to schools at the start of the new year.

Gov. Charlie Baker is making up to 250 members of the state's national guard available to help with staffing shortages, his office said Monday, and he suggested the program could expand.

"There are a bunch of communities that have expressed interest in this and we're glad to be able to help because it's important," Baker said.

At least four Massachusetts cities will get help bringing students to and from school from the National Guard amid a national school bus driver shortage.

As of Monday, 90 members of the guard will begin training on Tuesday for work in Chelsea, Lawrence, Lowell and Lynn. They will be able to take children to school on transport vans called 7D vehicles, officials said.

Baker said in a tweet, "The safe and reliable transportation to school each day is critical to our children's safety and education."

The service was offered to Boston, Baker told reporters, but local officials didn't want it right away. But Mayor Kim Janey said that the vast majority of buses arrived within 15 minutes of the start of school Monday morning.

"This morning, 94% of buses arrived within 15 minutes of the bell time and 98% arrived within 30 minutes of the bell time. The Boston Public Schools (BPS) is committed to doing everything possible to ensure all students in the City of Boston are getting to and from school safe and on time," she said in a statement.

Lowell schools Superintendent Joel Boyd said in a statement that 15 National Guard drivers will be available by the end of the week, in a partnership that will continue until enough permanent drivers to fill their slots.

"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.

Under state law, 7D vehicles, also known as "school pupil transport 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 missing "will meet all statutory requirements for 7D drivers."

As students returned to full-time in-person learning in Boston, a school bus driver shortage led to question marks.

School districts around the country have been contending with the school bus driver shortage, which hampered the start of this school year in Boston. Some parents said buses didn't show up on the first day, despite Mayor Kim Janey's promise that they would.

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." The union said the district gave them more than 100 additional routes than they've had in prior years at the last minute.

But Boston Public Schools said the district had a 57% on-time rate Thursday morning, better than the five-year average for the first day of school.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure that every single bus is available for students," Janey said that day.

The driver shortfall isn't new this year -- Lynn had issues in the spring, for example -- 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, Joanna McFarland, co-founder and CEO of school ride-service company HopSkipDrive, which tracks school bus issues, has said.

Her company conducted a survey in March that found nearly 80% of districts that responded were having trouble finding enough bus drivers.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

NBC/The Associated Press
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