School buses line up at a Westport school. / Jarret Liotta file photo

WESTPORT — Transportation for Westport public school students “has been a major challenge this year,” Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice said as a shortage of school bus drivers is disrupting schedules and routes.

The driver shortage, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic across the broader transportation sector nationally, has forced Westport school and bus company officials to change some local bus routes and consolidate others. 

Dattco, according to a statement from Scarice, has “been able to staff our buses by re-allocating office personnel with the appropriate licensure to serve as drivers. However, the impact of the shortage has now hit Westport. 

“To compound the challenges, there has been a marked increase in the volume of traffic on town roads,” he said.

The result,  Scarice added, is consistent delays and late arrivals at both the start of the school day and heading home at the end of the day.

To address the challenge some school bus routes are being consolidated, the superintendent said, while “other routing options are being explored.”

Scarice said individual schools will communicate with parents when buses will be affected by consolidation or a driver shortage.

He urged parents to prepare contingency plans to assure their child’s transportation to and from school in light of the continuing bus problems.

Meanwhile, new Dattco drivers “are becoming more familiar with our routes, which will enable routes to be completed more quickly,” he said. The bus company also is trying to hire more drivers with incentives, such as signing bonuses and expedited training for their required licenses.

Buses traditionally have been expected to clear their respective school yards within 30 minutes of the end of the day, but the consolidation of routes is causing later departure times, Scarice noted.

When the driver shortage forces route changes or times, principals will work with the school district’s transportation coordinator to give as much advance notice to parents as possible, Scarice said. The principals will try to provide a bus’s specific time of departure from school so parents can plan accordingly.

“This is not a permanent solution to this problem,” Scarice warned, “but rather a way to provide transportation in a crisis. We will continue to work with Dattco to develop strategies to secure more drivers.”