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Pennsylvania is contacting 375,000 holders of commercial driver’s licenses in a recruitment campaign meant to ease a severe shortage of school bus drivers, officials said Thursday.

The state has a little more than 42,000 school bus drivers, the smallest complement in five years and about 2,000 fewer than in 2017, which has left some districts scrambling to get students to and from school. Officials are hoping to address the shortage by appealing to drivers looking for work or seeking to supplement their income.

“We want to do everything we possibly can to expand the number of individuals with school bus endorsements to be able to get our children to school. That’s the critical part of all of this,” said Kurt Myers, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for driver and vehicle services.

He said the Department of Transportation will mail all current CDL holders about the need for bus drivers and inform them how they can get the right endorsement to operate a school bus. PennDOT will also temporarily offer another day of CDL skills testing per week. The additional testing days will be held on Mondays for four consecutive weeks beginning Oct. 18.

Schools across the nation are facing driver shortages, with nearly 80% of districts in one survey saying they were having trouble finding enough drivers.

In Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh delayed the start of school because of the shortage and began the year with hundreds of students still without a seat. The district said those families would be eligible for reimbursement of transportation costs. The School District of Philadelphia is also paying parents to drive their children to and from school.

In rural northwestern Pennsylvania, the Penncrest School District announced rotating two-hour delays. Superintendent Timothy Glasspool told families the driver shortage “has reached a critical point, and is affecting our ability to operate at full capacity.”

The Pennsylvania School Bus Association, a trade group representing transportation contractors, surveyed its members over the summer and estimates at least 1,000 drivers are needed statewide. The executive director, Ryan Dellinger, said it is a longstanding issue that’s been made worse by the pandemic, with some drivers reluctant to come back because of COVID-19 concerns.

“It’s nothing new, it’s just now we’re at a crisis point,” Dellinger said Thursday. “Now we’re at the point where kids can’t get to school.”

He applauded the state’s outreach to CDL holders and said he’s hopeful it will result in new bus drivers.

The Pennsylvania education secretary, Noe Ortega, said Thursday that the driver shortage is “frustrating to our students, and our parents.” He said it “isn’t something we can fix overnight” but was optimistic that progress would be made.

Ortega and Myers spoke at an online news conference about the state’s efforts to keep schools open for in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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