UniteGPS –  This past week, Maine bus drivers at the Regional School Unit 21 (RSU 21) in Kennebunk received a special visitor: U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. The White House cabinet member met with local bus drivers and transportation leaders on April 11, 2022, to discuss the impact of COVID-19 relief funds on student transportation at RSU 21.

“We’re honored that our nation’s top education leader has chosen to visit RSU 21 on his visit to Maine to learn more about our work,” said Superintendent Dr. Terri Cooper in a press release

Joined by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Secretary Cardona personally came to thank bus drivers for their service during the two tumultuous years of the pandemic.

“It shouldn’t take a pandemic to appreciate our bus drivers,” said Cardona at the RSU 21 Transportation Department in Kennebunk. “We couldn’t do what we’re doing in our country without you.”

Maine bus drivers

Wanting to hear about new obstacles they’re facing, Maine bus drivers in attendance spoke about the challenges of following COVID-19 protocol with students, such as enforcing masks, temperature checks, and social distancing. Surrounding this visit were also conversations about the state’s ongoing bus driver hiring shortage. 

Existing long before the pandemic, the scarcity of bus drivers in Maine has only gotten more severe over the last two years. Even though many Maine school districts are offering free CDL training and bonuses, low wages and long processing times continue to be a deterrent for people to enter the industry. 

According to Superintendent Cooper, RSU 21 purchased new school buses totaling $188,000 through the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds. This past February, the school district serving Arundel, Kennebunk, and Kennebunkport also gave out $500 bonuses to full-time staff with federal funds. 

RSU 21 also recently used taxpayer money to repave the local school bus parking lot, according to the Portland Press Herald. Recent federal support has also helped the district provide a starting salary of $20 to a school bus driver starting with no experience.