Facing a shortage of more than a dozen school bus drivers, Albemarle County Public Schools plans to offer a $2,500 bonus for new and current drivers.
That’s $100 more than a bonus Charlottesville is offering for school bus drivers. The county school division also is asking families to drive their children to school, if possible, and is planning to expand walk zones around schools, which would mean more students walking or biking to school.
Albemarle officials are expecting the surge in COVID-19 cases in the area to make the shortage worse.
“Over the past two weeks, I’ve observed adjacent school divisions cutting back on transportation services and dramatically impacting school schedules due to driver shortages,” county schools Superintendent Matt Haas said in a recent video message. “I want to avoid that here in Albemarle if we can.”
Because more families have been driving their children to school, Haas said the division has been able to eliminate some bus routes and lower the number of drivers needed.
Additionally, students who don’t ride the bus for 10 consecutive days will lose their seat. The division also is expanding the use of vans to transport students because those vehicles do not require a commercial driver’s license.
“With all these changes, I hope to avoid the drastic solutions that other school divisions are facing, such as school schedule changes and cases where the buses simply do not run their routes and families are left with no transportation with no advance notice.”
Albemarle County typically needs about 165 drivers to get students to school. Buses are operating at full capacity with several COVID mitigation measures in place.
The bonus, or retention stipend, will be divided into monthly installments and extended to school nurses, another critical job that has been hard to fill, Haas told School Board members this past week.
The shortage of drivers is not new, and Albemarle has worked in recent years to improve pay and benefits to address the problem. However, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem.
“Our shortage does feel greater this year, and we are anticipating it not improving anytime soon,” Rosalyn Schmitt, the division’s chief operating officer, told School Board members.
In Charlottesville, officials have compressed the driver training and ramped up marketing efforts to get more drivers behind the wheel of a school bus. Those efforts brought in six new drivers and allowed the city to add three more routes. Because of a shortage of drivers and reduced capacity limits on the buses (a COVID mitigation measure), the city is only able to transport about half the number of students it usually would.
Charlottesville needs to hire 20 more people to reach its goal of 35 full-time drivers, according to a report presented earlier this month to the city School Board.
Albemarle has 18 vacancies in its transportation department. That includes jobs for van drivers and transportation aides.
Schmitt said a couple of potential drivers were in the training pipeline but the job pool is shallow.
The $2,500 bonus will be extended to hourly employees in the transportation department, including bus aides and maintenance staff members.
“Because while we’ve all borne the brunt of the complexity and the additional work that’s gone on during this pandemic, our transportation department has really taken the lion’s share with much of the work that they’ve had to do,” Haas told board members.
In early August, the school system was expecting to be nearly fully staffed but has since lost some drivers.
In the first week of school, four routes were open and the division was in need of four relief drivers, as well as two for extracurricular activities, ACPS spokesman Phil Giaramita said. Those open routes were covered by substitute drivers, as well as by Transportation Director Jim Foley.
“Because of the geographic size of Albemarle County — we’re the sixth-largest county by land area in Virginia, 726 square miles — we cannot function without those buses,” Haas said.
In addition to bus drivers, the division has a range of open positions in support services, including building services, the afterschool program and child nutrition, which has 11 vacancies.
“Obviously, the lack of these positions being filled forces our directors and our principals to think creatively to make sure that the work is getting done and accomplished in various and creative means, and that hopefully we’ll be at normal capacity and full capacity very shortly,” said Clare Keiser, the division’s assistant superintendent for organizational development and human resources leadership.