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Narragansett Pier School students are shown heading to their bus after school on Tuesday afternoon. Earlier this week, the town of Narragansett temporarily suspended rules that limit retirees from re-entering the workforce for more than 75 days. The move comes as the district is facing a COVID-related shortage for school bus drivers.

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – A COVID-related shortage of school bus drivers has officials in Narragansett looking to get help from retired operators, after relaxing a rule that normally suspends their pension benefits for going back to work.

“During COVID the school transportation staff has had great difficulty keeping it fully staffed to transport our students to and from the schools,” Town Manager James Tierney said.

The town has an ordinance that says that retirees who re-enter the workforce for more than 75 days can continue to receive their pension, but would have their salary reduced by the amount of the benefit.

“They’ve re-employed retired members who will exceed the ordinance limit of 75 days, therefore many would not continue working if there was going to be some type of financial impact,” Tierney said.

Suspending that section of the ordinance, which the Town Council did this week, will ensure safe travel too and from schools, he said.

“We’ll have the staff to get the children (to school),” Tierney said.

There’s no financial benefit or loss to the town, the manager added.

The town receives authority from the state, specifically Gov. Daniel J. McKee, to hire back educational field retirees for a limited period because of COVID worker shortages.

McKee signed an executive order to do so on Sept. 8, 2021 and renewed it on Dec. 3.

The order by McKee frees up municipalities to hire “retirees who may have critical skills necessary to address the public health crisis and may be reluctant to re-enter state service if their pension benefits would be suspended,” and notes that “it was advisable to remove any disincentive to re-employment of skilled and knowledgeable retirees for limited periods and limited personnel in order to address this health emergency.”

Narragansett Schools Supt. Peter Cummings said the order and the town action to suspend the ordinance are welcomed and will help alleviate a shortage of bus drivers.

“We have been able to fill the gap with having drivers who have retired to come back for the short term,” Cummings said.

But state retirement rules only allow those returnees to work a certain amount of hours.

“This allows them to finish the school year in those positions because there’s such a shortage,” he said.

Cummings said the district currently has two drivers who returned to help fill the gap in available drivers.

“I’m grateful to our drivers for coming back when we most need them,” Cummings said. “It’s a very difficult position to fill right now.”

Narragansett is not the only area town whose school system is dealing with staffing shortages related to COVID.

The North Kingstown School Committee recently approved an increase to the daily substitute teacher rate, setting it at $145 per day – higher than many surrounding districts.

Also, the North Kingstown schools this month are set to explore an increase in daily substitute rates for teacher assistants and clerks.

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