State waives bus driver regulation amid persistent shortage

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square 

(The Center Square) — The pandemic revealed all sorts of problems in Pennsylvania’s education system. School districts struggling to recruit school bus drivers was an overlooked one, and the problem hasn’t abated. 

Students wait to board a school bus in Philadelphia.
4kclips | Shutterstock

PennDOT, however, took a step forward recently in removing a licensing requirement that’s long been a stumbling block.

Last week, the agency announced it would waive the “under the hood” requirement for school bus drivers, which it called an outdated requirement. Previously, potential drivers had to pass a portion of the CDL test where they identified components of the engine — even though they are barred from leaving the bus’s cabin with children on board.

“Governor Shapiro has made it clear that the commonwealth should help people succeed, not get in the way. Under his direction, PennDOT is working to make our services more accessible and effective for the people of Pennsylvania,” PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll said in a press release. “This modernized test is another way PennDOT is enhancing its services to better serve our CDL applicants while still ensuring the safety of school bus passengers.”

On preserving safety, PennDOT officials were emphatic that the waiver doesn’t pose a concern.

“Knowing the components of a school bus engine does not impact a school bus driver’s safe driving skills,” Deputy Secretary for Driver and Vehicle Services Kara Templeton said.

School bus drivers lauded the change.

“It’s a win, it’s moving in the right direction,” Aaron Sepkowski, president of Pocono Transportation and first vice president of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association.

Sepkowski had warned the House Republican Policy Committee in May of how the “daunting” process to become a school bus driver created headaches, as The Center Square previously reported.

Aside from the waiver, he would still like to see a school bus-only CDL more focused on safety and student management than on mechanical knowledge. Though he’s not opposed to screening workers, the clearance process from multiple background checks can drag on for months, which deters workers.

“Twelve weeks is a long time when you can go to McDonald’s for $20 an hour, $15-$20 an hour, and have a job tomorrow,” Sepkowski said.

The waiver, however, isn’t a permanent solution — at least, not yet. While the waiver takes effect on August 26, it’s dependent on a federal waiver that expires in November 2024. 

Despite the uncertainty over the under-the-hood waiver, state officials in the executive and legislative branches have paid attention to school bus issues. In 2022, the Joint State Government Commission released a report on school bus driver shortages in Pennsylvania.

That report recommended a federally created school-bus-only-CDL to boost worker retention and recruitment, revising the state transportation funding formula to cover growing transportation costs, and reducing how far drivers are required to take students to non-public schools, among other ideas.

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