WOBURN - State officials say a regional manpower crisis that hamstrung Woburn’s out-of-district transportation provider at the start of school in September has been resolved.
On Monday, Mass. Governor Charles Baker ended the Mass. National Guard’s months-long emergency school transportation mission and thanked nearly 250 guard members filling the critical manpower void in Woburn and at least a dozen other communities scattered across the state.
According to the governor, who in September first announced he would be deploying guardsmen to deal with bus and van driver shortages in Lynn, Lawrence, Chelsea, and Lowell, the soldiers handled nearly 14,626 student pickups and drop-offs during their mission. In total, nearly 236 guardsman stepped up to take on more than 3,000 unstaffed transportation routes, and 190 soldiers obtaining special 7D vehicle driver’s certifications to familiarize themselves with the vans and related safety protocols.
“The Commonwealth is grateful to the men and women of the Massachusetts National Guard for answering the call and supporting the safe transportation of students in communities across Massachusetts,” Baker said yesterday in announcing the end of the emergency mission.
“By working collaboratively with local districts who requested assistance, the Guard was able to provide critical school transportation support at a time when schools, students and families needed it most,” the state executive added.
Woburn Superintendent Dr. Matthew Crowley first revealed in mid-September that the city had reached out to the National Guard for help in getting local students get to out-of-district placements.
At the time, North Reading Transportation (NRT), which serves was the communities special education (SPED) transportation provider, was scrambling to hire hundreds of drivers to operate its fleet of vans and buses. Based upon an assessment of local officials, NRT lacked the manpower to staff at least 38 contracted routes to school for local SPED pupils.
School Committee veteran Dr. John Wells first openly called for an investigation into the transportation issues after a White Elementary School area parent approached the board in early September to complain about the sporadic and unreliable services being provided to her young child.
That initial report about the busing problems, which involved a child who school is situated in Beverly, sparked an investigation by the School Committee’s Student Services and Achievement Subcommittee, which thanks to the help of Woburn’s Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC), unearthed evidence of the wider manpower shortages.
“There is a 15 percent shortage at NRT with 38 unfilled routes. Some [existing drivers] are doing double runs and finding other solutions,” School Committee member and Student Service Subcommittee Chair Colleen Cormier explained during a meeting in mid-September.
In total, the Guard provided school transportation support in 13 districts, including Brockton, Chelsea, Framingham, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Quincy, Revere, Wachusett (regional), Woburn, and Worcester.
National Guard members drove a total of 329,224 miles while serving out its mission, according to state officials.