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Charlottesville to cut school bus waitlist in half

Charlottesville will cut the list of students waiting for a school bus seat in half after winter break.

School officials said Friday that the waitlist is down to 320 students, down from 699 in November. The city has made incremental progress toward reducing the waitlist since school began in later August. Near the start of the school year, 1,286 students were waitlisted, due in large part to a shortage of drivers that has plagued not only the city but also many parts of the country.

The City of Charlottesville is planning to add three more routes after winter break, which would add about 378 seats for preschoolers through 12th-graders. The city expects 2,015 students to be on the bus starting Jan. 4. During the 2019-20 school year, about 2,200 students relied on the bus to get to school.

The school division contracts with the Charlottesville’s transit department to provide transportation for students.

“We really appreciate Pupil Transportation working so hard against the odds to shrink this list,” said Kim Powell, the division’s associate superintendent for finance and operations. “They have battled the national driver shortage, delays in processing, pandemic limitations on the numbers on a seat. We’re also thankful for all the families who continue to help us out by providing their own transportation. We know we can’t declare victory until every family who wants bus service has that option.”

The division planned to notify families before the start of winter break about their bus status.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a national and statewide driver shortage and reduced capacity on the buses.

Although division data shows the transportation issues haven’t had a significant impact on student attendance, officials have acknowledged the toll it has taken on families and staff members.

An average of 95% of students division-wide attended school in November, which is on par with pre-pandemic rates.

“With all of the hard work of our families and our community, the challenging decisions going on between transportation and schools, we’re able to maintain that ballpark 95% attendance rate,” Powell told board members. “That is something we’re going to continue to monitor throughout this process.”

Employees have driven students to and from school, which is one way the division has worked to ensure students can get to school if they don’t have a spot on the bus.

The division and city also have worked to improve processes and systems to more quickly fill a bus seat when one opens up. That’s in addition to a recruitment push to bring on more drivers and efforts to compress the training and hiring timeline from two months to three weeks.

“I’m really happy to be still continuing that 95% attendance rate, even though there are still some students who are not being served,” board member James Bryant said at this month’s board meeting. “But things have improved drastically since the beginning of the year. Appreciate all your hard work.”

At the end of November, the city had 12 pupil drivers, three relief drivers, four CAT drivers helping out and six in the hiring and training process, according to data provided to the School Board. The city started with 20 total and officials said 30 are needed to fully staff regular bus routes. A total of 40 are needed to give drivers time off and provide transportation for students with special needs.

“Over a 90-day period, we’ve increased by five drivers,” Powell said at the December meeting. “That’s the main takeaway from the first chart. Understand you can’t learn to drive a school bus overnight. It takes weeks, and there’s the whole onboarding process, background checks and health screenings. And then there’s the training that has to go on after that both classroom and behind the wheel. It’s something that can’t happen but so quickly, so the fact that with all the comings and goings there’s been a net gain of five drivers is good progress.”

The city’s bus ridership data doesn’t yet include students who have recently immigrated to the area but have not yet been assigned to a school. Powell told board members that they’ve been told that there are 120 students currently living in area hotels.

“Right now, they’re big challenge is housing and we don’t yet know whether they will settle in Charlottesville or Albemarle County or perhaps even other surrounding counties,” she said. “I know various school divisions including ours have been dropping off packets and things like that for the families, but we don’t know what effect that will have on our demands for transportation but we are monitoring that as best we can.”


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