First wave of guard troops train for school bus duty

Deployment expected this week to districts short on drivers

BOSTON — John McCarthy has been in the student transportation business for 33 years. He called the current shortage of school bus drivers unprecedented.

“We were down about 15 percent in the middle of the summer,” McCarthy said. That translated to a shortage of 350 drivers for NRT Bus, based out of Methuen. “We’re still down about 150 drivers. The good news is we’re getting a good response from the (help wanted) ads since after the stimulus package ended.”

And in the short term, McCarthy is getting some help from an unlikely source: The Massachusetts National Guard.

Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker activated up to 250 Guard members to help transport school children, initially in four communities: Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn and Chelsea. But bus driver shortages exist in many other places, including Boston -- which is reportedly looking at the possibility of asking for Guard help on student transportation.

Tuesday and Wednesday, NRT helped Guard members train for the license required to transport school children in small vans: the 7d. While those vehicles look to be nothing more than a standard vehicle with a SCHOOL BUS sign attached to the top, McCarthy said there are intricacies to carrying students that center around safety.

“Those vans have specific lights that other vehicles would have to notice,” McCarthy said. “There’s the safety of dropping children on and off. Also, there’s equipment on that vehicle they need to know about in the event there’s an emergency.”

The vans also contain systems to alert drivers if a child tries to exit the vehicle before they are supposed to, and another alarm if anyone is accidentally left behind.

Still, there are some things school bus drivers only know from experience -- and the Guard members could get no more than a crash road course in those. Such as, what to do when you arrive at a child’s house and no parent is home? The answer appears to be: Hope there are still other students in the van to drop off so there’s time to kill before going back.

Normally, the National Guard gets called out after natural disasters, to help fortify war zones, to alleviate suffering.

And to some extent, not being able to get to school on time -- or at all, in some cases, after so many months of abnormalcy -- fits into the latter category for some parents and children.

As McCarthy put it, “It really puts a new spin on what a hero is, right? It’s just one more thing that a hero does.”

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