On the first day of classes in the Charlottesville school division, more than 1,000 students who requested to ride the school bus didn’t have a seat and were put on a waitlist, according to information provided by the school division.
Another 1,000 or so students had a spot, and about 1,500 families opted out of bus service, according to the division. A shortage of drivers has limited how many students ride the bus, leading many families to seek other ways of getting their children to school.
In the 2019-20 school year, about 2,600 students rode the bus to and from school. The school division has been preparing for limited school bus space after facing a similar situation in the spring when in-person classes resumed in March and 143 students were waitlisted.
Wednesday marked the first day of full-time, in-person learning for Charlottesville students since March 2020. Most of the division’s students are learning in-person, though there’s a smaller application-based virtual program. Similar to last year, the school division has several safety measures in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus within buildings, including requiring masks when indoors, social distancing and upgraded ventilation.
That also includes eating lunch outside whenever possible and ensuring the division employees are vaccinated. They have until Sept. 1 to be fully vaccinated or else provide weekly proof of a negative COVID-19 test. So far, 95% of employees meet that requirement, officials said in a town hall Sunday. Another 3% were slated to have their first shot this week.
On Monday morning, School Board Chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres volunteered to drive a small bus from International Neighbors and help students who didn’t get a spot on the yellow school bus because she heard there might be a need. She was stationed outside Heartwood Apartments on Michie Drive early Monday morning, but her services were not initially needed.
All elementary students who lined up for the yellow bus were able to board. However, Larson-Torres and other division staff are worried about the students who didn’t leave their apartments because they didn’t have a bus seat.
Additionally, officials have said all month that they were worried about the families who need bus service but didn’t sign up for whatever reason. On the first day, school principals and staff members were working to identify those missing children or those who need help getting to school.
“The kids that are probably not going to make it on the bus were those that there was potentially a language barrier for because a lot of this had to do with making sure that they’re registered and that they’re in PowerSchool,” she said, referring to the division’s student information system.
Larson-Torres said that after the first day, it seems that families for whom English is not their first language are feeling the effects of the driver shortage more acutely.
“It’s an equity issue, and these parents are working two and three jobs,” she said.
The school division has worked with the City of Charlottesville throughout the summer to address the shortage of school bus drivers. Those efforts ramped up earlier this month after City Council approved a $2,400 hiring bonus for new and current drivers as well as providing full-time health insurance for employees who are part time.
The school division pays the city about $2.8 million to transport its students.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a national and statewide driver shortage and reduced capacity on the buses. Charlottesville is limiting students to two per one seat, down from three per seat. Earlier this month, city officials said they had 10 available bus drivers ready to go for the first day of school.
Preschoolers, students with special needs and those who didn’t have any other way to get to school were given priority in determining who could ride the bus.
To help students get to school, the division and city created walking and biking maps for each school. Similar to the spring when bus seats were also limited, parents coordinated with one another to arrange carpools, walking groups or other ways to get students to school.
On social media, parents said they only found out recently that their child wouldn’t have a spot on the bus, creating more challenges.
Division officials are hoping the crisis is a short-term one. If the city has enough drivers to do so, they’ll increase the number of routes by Sept. 14.
“So it’s gonna take time, but we’re doing everything we can,” Larson-Torres said.
With more people driving to schools, particularly Charlottesville High School, the city announced Wednesday evening that Melbourne Road will be restricted until further notice to school buses during the morning and afternoons and while construction crews continue to work on the Melbourne Road bridge. Drivers should use the school’s Grove Road entrance and approach it from Dairy and Meadowbrook Heights roads.
Only school buses will be allowed to enter the school using John Warner Parkway and Park Street from 8:45 to 9:15 a.m. and from 3:30 to 4:15 p.m.