Editorial: Vaccine mandate a stop sign for some CT school bus drivers

Students get of the busses at Danbury High School on the first day of the new school year on Aug. 30, 2021, in Danbury and Brookfield, Conn.

Students get of the busses at Danbury High School on the first day of the new school year on Aug. 30, 2021, in Danbury and Brookfield, Conn.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

Like a school bus driver at an early morning stop sign, it’s important to look both ways before proceeding regarding the new vaccination mandate.

School officials throughout the state endured a tense weekend of waiting for Monday morning, when the deadline arrived for drivers to produce proof of receiving at least one COVID-19 vaccination, or face mandatory testing. There were also murmurs of a possible walkout in protest of the mandate.

A walkout would have been shameful, and thankfully never happened. A few districts, including Derby, North Haven, Southbury and Middlebury, reported absent drivers.

“I think I can speak on behalf of 500,000 kids and their parents that thankfully the overwhelming majority of school bus drivers showed up and let kids get back to school,” Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday.

A grateful governor is hardly a declaration of a crisis averted. Connecticut was already dealing with a notable shortage in drivers that motivated several coaches to hire party buses to get their athletes to games.

The Connecticut School Transportation Association acknowledged confusion on deadline day, as some drivers lacked proof of vaccination or a negative test result. Refusal to comply was expected to result in unpaid suspensions.

An association survey of drivers held at the end of last week identified 1,558 who were not vaccinated. In a year when it is increasingly challenging to contextualize numbers, this is an imposing one. Take a moment to extrapolate that by how many students they transported in recent weeks.

Given that many of the drivers are older, it’s discouraging that so many missed the deadline or scorned the mandate. They’ve had months to get vaccinated, and should have tried to get to the front of the line given that their job description is to keep children safe.

Now let’s look in the other direction as we pause at the stop sign.

Many drivers came through yet again. This is not easy work. They routinely deal with punishing schedules, unpredictable weather and traffic challenges and the impulsive spirits of our youngest citizens. Bus drivers deserve a medal every day.

That’s in typical conditions. USA Today reported this week that drivers in at least 10 states have died of COVID since schools opened in August.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires masks to be worn on school buses, but drivers can’t police their young passengers. And, as temperatures drop, windows will close.

For many drivers who take the gig in their retirement years to earn extra cash, it’s just not worth the risk during the pandemic. So it’s hardly surprising that the number of retiring drivers spiked in the last year.

The mandate that kicked in Monday should serve as a proverbial stop sign for those 1,558 drivers. Some lessons, in the classroom and outside of it, are taught the hard way. Any doubt about getting vaccinated should be erased when any driver stops to consider the passengers.