About 10% of Albemarle County Public Schools students who ride buses, or as many as 500 students, will get to school late at least in the short run because of an ongoing bus driver shortage that has plagued the entire nation since the pandemic began.
As school got underway Wednesday, ACPS was dealing with the shortage of about 20 school bus drivers by having some drivers do double rounds. That means, going forward, that students in some areas will have to wait 30 to 45 minutes for drivers to take the first group of riders and double back on routes before and after school every day.
“I got on the bus at eight. The ride has always been an hour,” said Bryce, a ninth-grader, when he arrived to school at 9:17 a.m. on his first day of high school. “I think it’s just normal now. It’s been like this since I was in sixth grade.”
The system is doing all it can to deal with the driver shortage and delays, said ACPS spokesman Phil Giaramita, but recognizes that ultimately the solution lies in filling the vacant driver positions.
“Our drivers drive more than 14,000 miles with 550 individual bus routes. And we don’t have an option to say we’re not going to transport your child,” he said.
The district considers the distance of routes, the number of stops, the distances between stops and the time it takes to complete a route, among other factors, as it decides which drivers double-back.
“No route is created equal; all these routes are different,” said Giaramita.
The district also does not want the same areas and routes to be affected repeatedly by the shortages, Giaramita said.
Each school within the district is responsible for establishing any additional supervision or programs for students required to wait after school, as well as attendance allowances and instructional support for students who arrive at school late.
“We actually made our home room and Mustang Morning periods the first ones of the day so the bus delays wouldn’t cause more disruption,” said Dr. Beth Costa, principal of Monticello High School (MHS). “So there’s a little bit of a buffer there.”
For example, instructors at MHS take attendance during homeroom, which starts at 8:55 a.m. Immediately after homeroom students go to Mustang Morning, which is like a second homeroom, allowing bus-riders another 30 minutes to trickle in before second period begins at 11:05 a.m.
Throughout the year, schools will individually decide on any afterschool programs or adapt to provide additional assistance necessary for students.
The stacked homeroom and Mustang Morning periods at MHS are one way to prevent students from missing important lessons.
“The bus came to pick me up at 8:27, so I was waiting for it to come for about 30 minutes,” said Luis, a senior at MHS, when he arrived at 9:17 a.m.. “My first main class is biology at 9:45 a.m., so I’m not really worried.”
While schools make room for the reality of late arrivals, holes in driver employment are growing.
Besides seeking drivers to take students to and from school daily, ACPS also wants to hire more drivers for bus needs like sports and other off-campus activities.
“Overall, there’s a shortage of about 30 bus drivers, but 18 of the 30 are drivers who take children to school from their home. The other drivers either drive an activity bus or they’re relief drivers,” said Giaramita. “Based on this year’s survey, it projects that there could be as many as 10,000 students really riding the bus, which would be double what we had last year.”
The Albemarle County Transportation Services Department has already consolidated several bus stops and may have to combine more if the driver shortage cannot be resolved swiftly.
The key for remedying the shortage in Albemarle is in the district’s revision of driver recruitment strategies, according to Giaramita.
ACPS has commissioned an outside consultant to conduct a survey and analysis of compensation and benefits across job categories, including bus driver positions.
“We are looking at the possibility of converting some of these part time bus driving jobs to full-time jobs, so that might be more appealing,” Giaramita said. “In January we’re going to be adding some smaller buses to our fleet. The value of that is that the smaller buses won’t require a commercial driver’s license. Those with a regular driver’s license can qualify.”
The analysis of survey results will be complete in October, when the School Board will decide on hiring changes.
A successfully recovering local economy is just one reason the driver hiring process seems to be at a standstill.
“When the regular economy is strong, we tend to have a tougher time recruiting drivers. When the economy gets tight and difficult, and there are fewer jobs, then logically, more and more people are willing to consider a part-time job as a bus driver,” Giaramita said.
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