Schools can use federal COVID-19 relief money on bonuses to retain school bus drivers, reimbursements for costs parents incur in sending their kids to and from school, and other strategies to alleviate transportation problems they may be facing, the U.S. Department of Education says in new guidance.
While COVID aid used in this way would have to go to transportation expenses specifically linked to the pandemic, that could cover helping students participate in high-dosage tutoring, extended learning-time programs, and activities to address the social and emotional impact of the virus, the department said.
“This could include, but is not limited to, transportation services provided directly by the school district; the cost of public transportation services (e.g., bus or subway fare); taxis, rideshare apps, or other driving services; or compensation to parents for providing transportation services for their children,” the department said in its guidance, which the agency released in response to frequently asked questions about the matter.
Staff shortages at schools have been among the most serious challenges educators have faced this academic year—amid a nationwide labor shortage—and one of the most prominent shortfalls has been a lack of qualified school bus drivers. District leaders in at least 11 states have asked the National Guard for help in alleviating a lack of bus drivers, according to an Education Week analysis. Leaders in Clark County, Nev., schools, one of the nation’s largest districts, recently asked for 50 to 100 Guard members to work as drivers.
But there are limits to such a strategy, and one New York state legislator who called on the National Guard to help schools in this way earlier this year had his request turned down by state officials.
The need for transportation is definitely there. Education Department data from a few weeks ago showed that out of 45.2 million students for which information was available, over 99 percent were learning in person, and fewer than 180,000 (or 0.4 percent) were participating in a mix of in-person and remote learning.
And this challenge is not entirely new, even in the context of the pandemic. Last year, amid rising costs and other COVID-related issues like social distancing, at least a few districts offered to pay parents if they agreed to find a way to get their kids to and from classes without a school bus.
The new department guidance says districts can use COVID relief to reimburse parents or offer them a transportation-related stipend, the department said. But if they do so, they must track money that’s spent this way, document transportation costs related to in-person attendance, and meet other requirements.
On the subject of school buses specifically, the department’s guidance says the COVID relief money can be used to pay for salary increases as well driver bonuses, and to hire additional drivers to operate more bus routes made necessary by social distancing during the pandemic. It can also be used to help new drivers pay for the costs of obtaining commercial driver’s licenses.
The new nonbinding guidance is a supplement to previous, much broader material from the department about permissible uses of pandemic aid. It applies to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, which is a part of three big COVID relief packages from Washington totaling about $190 billion, as well as the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund.