The COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on many school bus contractors as they struggle with a swift and nearly complete suspension — or in some cases, loss — of business.
Karim Johnson, the general manager of Integrity Student Transportation Services in Columbia, S.C., operates one of those companies.
“I have been hit hard because I only have field [and] athletic trip contracts with schools,” Johnson told School Bus Fleet.
Since March 11, Johnson had all his trips canceled because of school closings prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That isn’t just having an impact on Integrity Student Transportation Services in the near term.
“With the chance that school may not return to session this school year, the future of my operation is up in the air,” Johnson added.
In New Jersey, where on Saturday Gov. Phil Murphy ordered all residents to stay home, Judah Nagar, the fleet manager for Seman-Tov Bus Co., told SBF that, like many other contractors, he is concerned about the pandemic putting his family’s operation out of business.
“Districts need to start paying all private contractors,” he said. “They have the money allocated for it anyway.”
Seman-Tov Bus Co. serves 12 districts and three private schools and has about 10 buses handling food delivery for the Lakewood Board of Education. The company, which is run by Nagar’s parents, is made up of about 250 employees.
“We need to pay our drivers, to keep them employed, so we don’t lose them,” Nagar added. “There’s a shortage as it is.”
John Benish Jr., the president of the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) and president and chief operating officer of Cook-Illinois Corp., told SBF that the effect COVID-19 has had on his workforce is unprecedented, and, just like everyone else, “we have no idea what is going to happen the next hour or day.”
Benish Jr., who has worked in student transportation in his family business for most of his life, said that although the school transportation industry has weathered some severe crises over the years, including very long cold spells, strikes, and 9/11, “this has been and will be the most devastating event in our lifetimes.”
“I remember running on 9/11, and that was surely tragic, but seeing 90% of our employees off of work and worried sick about not working possibly the next 18 weeks is making me heartbroken,” Benish Jr. said.
When asked about what could help during this challenging time, Benish Jr. told SBF that constant communication within the organization and with customers is very important.
“Get in the ear of as many people as you can,” Benish Jr. said. “Explain not only what you are going through, but what you are going to do.”
He added that Cook-Illinois Corp is focusing on conveying calm and compassion.
“We owe it to our employees and the students we transport to be ready to get back to work when asked,” Benish Jr. said. “The children need us and we want them to come back [to school] soon.”
Meanwhile, school transportation and other transportation industry associations are calling Congress’s attention to the problem and are urging financial support.
Last week, the NSTA sent letters to 50 state governors, the Mayor’s Office of the District of Columbia, and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos calling for action that requires school districts to fund transportation systems through the conclusion of the pandemic. Read the NSTA’s letter to DeVos here.
Additionally, on Friday, seven major transportation associations signed a letter to President Trump and Congressional leaders asking for $12 billion to save transportation, an essential national infrastructure, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Bus Association’s (ABA's) President, Peter Pantuso, asked members in an email to immediately contact their congressional representatives, detail their situation and support the industry's requests for funding. On Saturday, the ABA shared this link to find Senator’s phone numbers to make calls.