It’s roughly a week before school starts in Albemarle County and parents are furious.
On top of the regular stressors of the back-to-school season, roughly 1,000 students have learned they will not have a bus to school come Aug. 23.
It’s the latest chapter in the nation’s chronic bus driver shortage.
“Despite our ongoing improvement efforts, we regret that we will be unable to provide bus transportation to every student in our school system who needs it,” Albemarle County Public Schools wrote in a message to parents.
The district is short a dozen drivers. As a result, a dozen routes are vacant and cannot provide service.
“We have about 12 vacant routes, and right now, because we don’t have drivers, we’re going to have to have those conversations with their families letting them know that we can’t transport,” Charmane White, the school division’s director of transportation, told The Daily Progress.
While the division has said that about 90% of Albemarle students will still have access to a bus route, some of those students must deal with “stacked routes” in which a driver picks up one set of students, drops them off and doubles back — often making students late for class.
For the remaining families, those who live in a “walk zone” or a private neighborhood where the county has terminated service or who were simply unfortunate enough to be on a cut route, there are really no good options.
And parents let officials know that at last Thursday’s school board meeting.
“I don’t have a job that I need to worry about in the morning, but in the afternoon I have a restaurant, so I’m going to have to leave so I can go pick up these kids,” Kellie Washington told The Daily Progress. “I’m going to have to leave early, and I’m going to have to pay other people to work, and it’s very inconvenient, and that’s just inconvenient for me. It’s impossible for some people.”
Washington is not only a parent of Albemarle students but a former bus driver herself.
She said, over the course of her nine-year tenure with the school division, she saw the treatment of bus drivers deteriorate.
“Just a lot of discrimination of employees, a lot of where they would punish employees for things, you can’t literally punish someone, but you can take the route from them anytime you want to. It’s part of the way it works,” she said.
It wasn’t always like this, according to Washington.
“I loved the job. I loved driving the kids. When I first started, I liked working for the county. They got along with everyone. Just a great opportunity. I felt like they really took care of employees,” she said.
It was hoped that better access to training and higher salaries would help the school division retain and increase driver numbers
The pay incentive is one of the best in the area, according to White.
“We are so excited of the salary increase, last year, up to $21.50 an hour, and then we have what is called a step scale, meaning you’re paid by your years of experience,” White said. “Now this approach with pay has set this county above other counties.”
That $21.50 is 50 cents more per hour than what neighboring Louisa County is currently advertising for bus drivers in its district. Louisa, though, has said that for the second consecutive year it has a full bus staff.
The root issue isn’t necessarily the pay but the division itself, Washington said.
“If they just fix the bus driver issue where they’re treating the bus drivers as humans, instead of treating them as second-class citizens, which is what they do, I think they would have enough bus drivers,” she said.
And just as she feels “discrimination” is why bus drivers left the district, she said she worries the new bus routes will open students up to “discrimination.”
The decision to provide transportation to select students leaves the door open for discrimination, Washington said.
“They told all the parents that the prioritized kids were these specific kids,” she said. “So now all these kids, the other children and the other parents can say, ‘Well the kids that are on the bus are the poor kids, the kids that are on the bus are the kids that have learning disabilities.’ And that doesn’t mean all the kids will be, but when you say those are the kids you’re specifically going to bring that’s just a way of discriminating against the children.”
The school division did in fact prioritize certain students, but that prioritization was based on a transportation survey sent out earlier this year. Findings from that survey were roughly the same as past years, and what the school division found is that many families request service, say they need service but then students don’t ever show up at their stops.
“She [White] mentioned in our June survey of all parents, parents requested bus service for nearly 10,000 students even though daily ridership (outside of the pandemic) has consistently been at 6,000,” county schools spokesman Phil Giaramita told The Daily Progress via email.“This is not new; for years, we have received requests for 10,000 students to be transported and no more than 6,000 to 6,500 actually have shown up each day.”
While parents may be concerned about unreliable routes, the county school district is concerned about unreliable riders.
Students not showing up for the bus has contributed to the division’s transportation troubles, according to Giaramita. Just more than half of the amount of students that requested transportation are expected to actually show at their bus stops.
“That’s a problem when your transportation system covers 14,000 miles each day (due to the size of the county), has 570 individual bus routes and 3,500 separate bus stops,” Giaramita said. “In effect, we are planning for 10,000 students even though past history tells us about 4,000 of these students will not show up to ride the bus. All of this complicates planning and contributes to delays.”
The division has implemented a “strictly enforced” limit to curb the amount of students not showing up to their stops.
“If a student does not ride a bus for 10 consecutive days, they will be removed from the passenger list,” Giaramita said.
In the meantime, with less bus routes available, the county has increased its number of “walk zones.”
Those zones were introduced in 2021. The scope of the zone in which nearby students are asked to walk to class now extends about a mile for elementary schools and a mile and a half for secondary schools.
“We already had walk zones in place, but we have increased our walk zones,” White said. “So this is going to serve some of the errors, again students that are within close proximity, our elementary children that are within a mile of the school, we’re asking them to walk, and then our secondary which is 1.5 [miles], we’re asking the students that they would walk to school. Again, this may not be so favorable for some families, but if you’re in close proximity within those walking distance, we, matter of fact, have removed those students from our school buses.”
Allison Spillman, who is running for the county school board, has children in the division who are within a walk zone, she said, but it’s not nearly as bad as it could be — as it is for families farther out who lost their bus routes for the upcoming school year.
“My neighborhood is a walking-distance neighborhood that kids can walk safely to school,” Spillman said. “Sure, it’s an inconvenience, but it’s nothing compared to being 20 or 30 miles away, having no other means to get to school.”
Should Spillman win her race, she said she would prioritize communication between all the parties involved to bring an end to, or at least ease the impact of, the bus driver shortage in the area.
“I think it’s all about communication,” said Spillman, who is running against Meg Bryce, daughter of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, for the at-large seat on the board. “That’s the thing I hear over and over again is that there is a lack of communication coming from the central office and that people don’t feel like they’re being heard. So for me, it’s holding these meetings listening to people, hearing what they have to say and then using that information to make meaningful change.”
The school division is already confident it is pursuing that level of communication, especially in the wake of last year.
Last year was a “nightmare,” according to White, especially when it came to stacked routes. Families and the division were still trying to figure things out.
“I know last year it was a nightmare for families trying to predict what time the bus would arrive, and we were struggling trying to find coverage because everybody knows that we have a driver shortage, and because of the shortage we were trying to figure out, maybe sometimes five o’clock to five-thirty in the morning, how are we going to cover a run,” White said.
Some students were getting to school over an hour late because of stacked bus routes, according to Giaramita.
“We were talking about students getting to school an hour late or later,” Giaramita said. “So it was a really significant issue and it was really important to eliminate that to the greatest extent possible for this year, not to repeat that experience.”
One mother who spoke before the school board Thursday said her child “begged” her to drive them to and from school to avoid the stacked route.
But for yet another school year, it does appear there will be no avoiding it for many students.