State athletic directors finding alternative travel plans during state bus shortage

When Brookfield athletic director Steve Baldwin departed school last Friday, Sept. 10, the school’s girls volleyball team had a scheduled road match in Milford after school Monday afternoon against Law.

When he returned to school on Monday morning, Baldwin found out that due to a bus driver shortage in town, no driver would be available to take the team to Milford until 4:30 p.m. So although the match was completed, it didn’t start until after 6 p.m. — and the JV match had to be canceled.

This is just one of several examples statewide where athletic directors have had to adjust on the fly in order to get in the athletic events of the day — and we are just over a week into the fall season.

“They are awesome. The people there (at All-Star Transportation) are great. There is only so much they can do. It’s not their fault,” Baldwin said. “To go through everything we’ve gone through (with the COVID-19 pandemic) has been difficult for everybody. Now we are back to quote unquote normal and we can’t get the kids there (to athletic events).”

On Sept. 9, something similar happened when Wilton wasn’t going to be able to get to Fairfield Warde any earlier than 4:30 for a 4 p.m. scheduled start time in the season opener for boys soccer.

The grass field at Warde doesn’t have lights and the turf field that does was occupied with other games. So the boys soccer game was moved to Saturday.

“Those are the things that will keep popping up,” said Fairfield Warde interim athletic director Dave Schulz, also the FCIAC commissioner. “There are plenty of buses. It’s bus drivers there’s a shortage of. That s the issue.”

It’s the trickle-down effect due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a bus driver shortage around the state, affecting transportation home from schools, let alone the start time for high school athletic events held in the afternoon.

The Danbury News-Times reported that bus drivers were available for approximately one-third of the school’s sports road trips, either games or practices not held on school grounds, this fall. Danbury athletic director Chip Salvestrini told the Danbury Board of Education that he would need to find up to 30 drivers for events held through Oct. 10.

“My district was very forthcoming saying there could be issues,” Hamden athletic director and football coach Tom Dyer said. “They are working to provide buses for school systems to make sure those runs are covered. We knew there would be some hiccups, but I’m not sure anyone was aware of the severity of the hiccups.”

Glenn Lungarini, the executive director of the CIAC, said that in a Monday zoom meeting with other state executive directors from Section I (the Northeast region), it was discussed how the busing shortage was affecting everyone.

“It goes far beyond the border of our state,” Lungarini said. “Some of our districts are looking to combine bus runs with multiple teams or stagger the start of games after school so that one team can be dropped, then return to school, pick up the second team and bring that team to their away site.”

These developments have had athletic programs looking to find alternative methods for getting their kids to events on time.

Baldwin said there were some bus issues in Brookfield last spring, so he looked into an outside company. He found Carriage Limousine Service out of Oxford.

“I was trying to find any way possible last year,” Baldwin said. “They had a party bus that was $400 cheaper than a coach bus. They gave me great rates. So for our smaller teams, I use that.”

Baldwin sent his girls tennis team to a Class M state tournament opening-round match in Stonington on a party bus. He said he used it six times last spring and will use it at least four times this year and a coach bus eight times, including last Tuesday’s trip to Nonnewaug in Woodbury for field hockey.

Dealing with a bus shortage means planning ahead on the busy days for athletics. Next Tuesday, Sept. 21, the cross country teams are heading to Pomperaug in Southbury by coach bus and the girls soccer team down to Kolbe Cathedral in Bridgeport on a party bus.

“They (the administration) want our kids to play any way possible,” Baldwin said. “Hopefully, in a week or two, my bus company says, ‘We’ve got drivers.’”

Newtown athletic director Matt Memoli said he used a party bus from Elite Limousine out of Norwalk to transport the Nighthawks’ girls volleyball team to Darien on Monday. For the Sept. 9 season-opening freshman football game at Brookfield, Memoli said he “sent out an email blast to parents” to make sure everyone had rides to the game.

Newtown used both a coach bus and carpooling for the cross country teams on a trip to Brookfield on Tuesday.

“It’s not easy to spend money on coach buses and do things like organizing carpools,” Memoli said. “Obviously, we are trying to stay ahead of the game as best we can. We do have a number of drivers in the middle of the certification process. Hopefully by the middle of October, we will have enough drivers for athletics. Three buses (per day for athletics) would be a dream right now.”

Schulz said that Darien showed up on a “luxury coach bus” for its JV football game on Monday.

Dyer said he asked another school district to borrow a bus so he could transport the cross country teams to Tuesday’s meet in New Haven. Dyer declined to say which district he contacted.

“Many of the ADs in the SCC have been in communication about the possibility of moving games in two weeks or next week,” Dyer said. “We try to do it a week or so ahead of time. I’m confident those in my district are aware of the situation and are working hard to resolve it.”

More games may be moved to the weekends when less buses are needed. Lungarini said Sundays are also an option to reschedule games — as has happened in previous seasons — as long as the date and time are mutually agreed upon.

“We’ve asked all of our schools to be flexible with one another about game times because of the bus issue,” SCC commissioner Al Carbone said. “It’s just another thing we added to our checklist to what we have gone through in the last year in terms of trying to have athletic activities, both from a safety standpoint and now a transportation standpoint.”

joseph.morelli@hearstmediact.com; @nhrJoeMorelli