Watch: Wolf Administration weighs in on national school bus driver shortage, COVID-19 testing in schools and vaccines for kids 5-11

Western PA News

Departments of Education, Health and Transportation held a news conference Thursday to discuss a number of hot topics related to keeping kids in schools during the pandemic.

The Wolf Administration on Thursday discussed the state’s strategy to address the shortage of school bus drivers, and provided updates on the anticipated rollout of the vaccine for kids aged 5-11, as well as, COVID testing in schools.

“Across Pennsylvania, students are excited to be back in the classroom, learning and growing and playing alongside their classmates,” Education Secretary Dr. Noe Ortega said in the news conference. “Our schools and students are resilient, and under the extraordinary circumstances created by the pandemic, this has been a good start to the school year. I thank the students, parents and communities for working together and finding creative solutions so students can remain in the classroom, where it’s vital for them to be.”

Hiring more school bus drivers

To address the need for school bus drivers statewide, school districts can use federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to reimburse parents or guardians to safely transport their students to and from in-person school.  

PennDOT is reaching out to 375,000 drivers with a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in the state about the immediate need for drivers and how to get the correct endorsements for a school bus license. 

PennDOT will also temporarily expand its days of operation to offer CDL skills testing at 23 locations throughout the state to include Mondays for four weeks beginning October 18, to make the process more convenient for potential drivers to complete the process faster.

To schedule a CDL skills test, visit the Driver and Vehicle Services website or call 717-412-5300. Also, certain third-party businesses are certified by PennDOT to administer the road test for a market-driven fee.

“PennDOT is committed to ensuring safe transportation for students,” Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary Kurt Myers said in the news conference. “We urge CDL licensees who are seeking work or supplemental employment to obtain a school bus endorsement – taking advantage of the additional hours for CDL testing – to help transport students safely.” 

For anyone wishing to become a bus driver, the first step is obtaining a CDL. Anyone 18 years or older can obtain the School Bus and Passenger endorsements on a CDL to obtain a school bus license. For a list of steps and forms to obtain a CDL and the school bus endorsement, please visit the Driver and Vehicle Services website under School Bus Drivers.

Vaccine in children ages 5 to 11

Anyone 12 and older is currently eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

This week, Pfizer submitted its application to the federal government for approval to administer the vaccine to children between 5 and 11-years-old.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) review and approval process is anticipated to take several weeks, school districts are encouraged to contact local vaccine providers to schedule on-site vaccination clinics.

“It’s very encouraging that more than half-a-million school-aged kids are already vaccinated,” Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said in the news conference. “We know that vaccinations are one of the best ways to prevent illness due to COVID-19 and help keep students learning in-person. That’s why we encourage everyone eligible to get vaccinated and we encourage schools to help make it as convenient as possible. It’s not too early to schedule a vaccine clinic in November in anticipation of federal approval for kids between 5 and 11.” 

Currently, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, 21.9 percent of children in the state ages 12-14 are fully vaccinated and 42.6 percent of children ages 15-19 are fully vaccinated.

“The vaccination numbers continue to increase,” Beam said. “In the past week, DOH has helped to connect a school in Erie and one in Pittsburgh to vaccine providers in the region.”

Last month, an order by the Acting Secretary of Health directed vaccine providers to coordinate vaccine clinics with schools for the employees, contractors, volunteers, students, or students’ families of the school.

K-12 classroom testing program

There are 396 schools throughout Pennsylvania currently using the COVID-19 testing program the Wolf Administration launched for the start of this school year to provide safer in-person environments for students, teachers and staff.

The pooled testing program is part of a larger strategy that schools are using including vaccination, physical distancing, facilities improvements, masks/face coverings, and hand hygiene to reduce the spread of the virus and keep students learning in classrooms.

“In the past week, more than 800 tests have been conducted in schools across the state through this free initiative,” Beam said. “The combination of on-going testing, masking and vaccinations will help keep students learning in the classroom.”

Schools can opt-in to participate in the free COVID-19 testing program at any time. The Department of Health is encouraging all schools to take advantage of this free testing program.

Early detection of COVID-19 cases in schools can help school officials take action that will help keep schools open and students in classrooms and participating in extracurricular activities. A key part of the testing program is the quick turnaround time for testing results, which is one to two days after testing. This allows schools to quickly identify if they have positive cases and to take action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the school and mitigate a possible school shutdown.

To support schools in the event a student tests positive for COVID-19, visit PDE’s website for information on responding to COVID-19 cases in schools.

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