Charlottesville families will find out by Aug. 16 if their children have a spot on the school bus for the first day of classes.
Bus seats are expected to be limited as the city grapples with a shortage of bus drivers and reduced capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The division is encouraging families to arrange for an alternative way to get their children to school.
The city is working to hire more drivers with a slew of advertisements running and recruitment events scheduled for this month. If the city has enough drivers to do so, they’ll increase the number of routes by Sept. 14.
Anyone interested in driving a bus can test-drive a vehicle from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday and Aug. 14 at Charlottesville High School. On Aug. 21, the job fair will be held at the same time but at Ting Pavilion.
The school division pays the city about $2.8 million to transport its students.
Charlottesville currently has 10 available bus drivers ready to go for the first day of school, Aug. 25, according to a presentation at Thursday’s city School Board meeting.
That translates to 13 elementary routes, nine middle school routes, eight high school routes and seven alternative school routes.
That’s fewer routes than what the city had in the spring, when spots on the bus were limited to preschoolers, special education students and others who didn’t have another way to get to school. In the spring, the city had 14 elementary routes, 11 middle school routes, 10 high school routes and two alternative school routes, according to the presentation.
Garland Williams, director of Charlottesville Area Transit, wrote in a presentation to the School Board that his team is waiting on information from the special education department about which other students might require alternative transportation, which could increase alternative route requirements and decrease regular route capacity.
In early July, the city had about 1,000 students routed, said Kim Powell, the school division’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations.
“The concern is how many families we do not know about, that they haven’t actually overtly expressed that they need transportation,” she said.
Powell encouraged families to contact their school to make sure they are on the list for bus service.
For back-to-school information that will go home next week, Powell said school staffers are making sure information about the bus is out front, similar to where students learn who their teacher is and about their class schedule.
“So that it’s very clear to a family what their status is,” she said, whether that’s on the bus, on the waitlist or listed as not needing transportation.
For students walking or biking to school, the city has made maps for each school. Additionally, the division is hiring two more crossing guards for a total of seven to help students get to school safely.
To help get more students to school, six CAT drivers have offered to help, and another five have said they might be willing to assist, according to the presentation. Two drivers who need to complete the road test for the S endorsement also have expressed interest.
Powell didn’t know yet what those drivers would mean in terms of routes but was hopeful more routes would come online by Sept. 14.
“This is the first time I’ve seen these numbers about the CAT drivers that are going to be available,” she said. I would hope that very quickly we could get everyone else on a bus because I think these CAT numbers are very promising.”
In previous years, the city has used as many as 10 CAT drivers to help get students to school, but as of July 30, the school division wasn’t sure how many drivers would be helping with school transportation.
The city currently is training one driver and has received four applications recently, along with interest from prior employees, according to the presentation. New and current drivers will receive a $2,400 bonus paid out in three installments over the course of the school year. The city also added a health insurance incentive to sweeten the pot.
Before the pandemic, the city had 20 elementary routes, 20 middle school routes, 15 high school routes, eight alternative school routes and six preschool routes, as well as after-school transportation.
The school buses also were filled to capacity, with three students to a seat, before the pandemic. This past spring, only one student could ride in a seat, except for those from the same household. For this school year, the city is planning to put two students in a seat.
However, that could change depending on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance.
“The COVID-19 infection numbers are rising rapidly, so I anticipate more guidance in the coming weeks,” Williams wrote. “I would anticipate that we will be required to reduce our capacity per bus.”