In Deptford, the elementary school day has been pushed back 15 minutes, and high school students are getting out 15 minutes earlier, in order for the public district to make do with a shortage of bus drivers.

"At the moment we're able to do it, but if somebody calls in sick or you have an issue, that puts you really behind the eight ball," Sal Randazzo, coordinator of communications for the district, told New Jersey 101.5.

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The district has already increased the starting pay for new drivers, and there's also a bonus of up $1,500 being offered to drivers who work a certain number of days and stay on through the entire academic year.

Randazzo said the district is willing to wait for non-CDL-licensed drivers to go through the process and obtain the necessary endorsements to become a school bus driver, but the district would prefer to get applications from people who are able to jump behind the wheel immediately.

"Before the pandemic, it was already sort of going this way," Randazzo said. "I don't know necessarily that money is the issue. There may just be other jobs out there that people would prefer to do."

Districts and bus companies are finding it even harder in 2021 to find qualified drivers for routes to and from schools. Industry professionals for a while now have been voicing concerns about a more rigorous testing and licensing process that could be keeping candidates away. The coronavirus pandemic made matters worse when kids were forced to learn remotely and transportation wasn't needed for months.

According to Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, there are approximately 7,000 licensed bus drivers currently receiving unemployment benefits in the Garden State. The association is in talks with New Jersey officials about how to reduce the driver shortage.

"Unquestionably it's more difficult this year," Bozza said. "Routes are extended, bus stops are pulled together. They're also cancelling trips for athletics and other co-curricular activities after school because they can't get drivers."

Camden schools recently moved to pay family members $1,000 if they transport their children to and from school each day during the 2021-2022 academic year. According to NorthJersey.com, a shortage has forced the K-12 district in Wayne to merge some of its routes and consolidate bus stops.

Gov. Phil Murphy recently dismissed — for now — the idea of bringing in the National Guard to lessen the burden on districts, like what's being done in Massachusetts.

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