Nearly 900 students remain on a waitlist for a bus seat in Charlottesville City Schools, but officials said Thursday that they are making progress on getting students with the most pressing needs.
“I do see more progress than what the number reflects as far as addressing most pressing needs,” said Kim Powell, the division’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations.
The division and City of Charlottesville, which provides student transportation, have worked to improve processes and systems to more quickly fill a seat once one opens up.
Last month, the City of Charlottesville added three bus routes, allowing more than 400 students to ride the bus to school for a total of 1,559. That’s still short of the roughly 2,200 students, on average, who relied on the bus daily in the 2019-20 school year.
Charlottesville is not the only locality experiencing a shortage of bus drivers. Albemarle County, which is currently short 12 drivers, is rolling out a series of changes next week aimed at reducing the number of drivers needed.
Powell told School Board members Thursday that the division is partnering with Yellow Cab and offering reimbursements for gas or mileage to help families get to school. Division staff members and community groups have also helped drive students to school.
“When schools identify a student with clear attendance issues, we scramble our resources and we try to address each of those situations as best we can,” Powell said, adding that it seems as soon as one family’s situation is addressed, she hears about another. “… I believe there are students who are not attending school regularly because of a transportation issue — because the transportation they’ve been depending on is not available to them perhaps every day. I feel certain of that.”
Several families that have received division assistance so far this school year have since gotten a bus seat, Powell said.
Powell acknowledged that the current system with the shortage of drivers is “far from perfect” but people are doing the best they can.
Board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said that families who are struggling with transportation should contact their school since officials can’t address a problem they don’t know about.
“We need to know,” she said.
The city has lost two of its regular school bus drivers since the start of the school year, city transit director Garland Williams said in a report to the board. However, two new hires start work Monday after passing the required road test through the Department of Motor Vehicles. Two people who currently drive Charlottesville Area Transit buses recently completed the training and will take the road test Oct. 26. Other new hires are still in the training pipeline.
The city is offering a $2,400 bonus for new and current drivers as part of a hiring push.
The pandemic has exacerbated a national shortage of bus drivers and mitigation measures have reduced capacity on the buses. This year, two students are allowed per seat, down from the usual three. Albemarle County’s school buses are running at normal capacity.
A commercial driver’s license with an S endorsement is required to become a bus driver. Free training is provided to those without a CDL, but that training and licensure process takes several weeks.
Williams told board members last month that the training process has been compressed from two months to about three weeks. However, some aspects, such as the background check and DMV testing, are outside his department’s control.
About six drivers from the CAT are helping with student transportation, and Williams said that’s all CAT can handle and still be able to operate.
When the next batch of drivers start working, Williams said the city will have 20 school bus drivers. The division’s contract with the city calls for 30 drivers, but Williams has said the optimal number would be 40 in order to allow people to take time off.
The city is not able to provide transportation for early morning classes and activities and after-school programs but that could change as more drivers are hired and complete the training. Williams said the priority is getting students to school on-time and taking them home in the afternoon.
“I would also say that the team that is in place now, we’re doing everything we possibly can to eradicate this as soon as we possibly can,” Williams said. “So sleep well knowing that we’re not where we want to be, and we’re doing everything we can to make this go away.”
The Albemarle County school division recently started offering a $2,500 bonus for drivers and other transportation employees and stepped up enforcement of the walk zones around schools, which mean more students are walking or biking to school or relying on a private vehicle.
The walk zone enforcement affects about 325 students, county schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said.
“These are students who have been receiving bus service even though they lived closer to a school than is our guidance, which is providing bus transportation for secondary students who lived a mile or further from school and for elementary school students who live one-half mile or longer from their school,” he said.
The division also has requested that families who are able to do so drive their children to school.
The changes to the walk zones and bus routes go into effect Monday and will take seven buses off the road, Giaramita said. That includes five in the northern feeder pattern and two in the western feeder pattern.
“There are no substantive impacts in terms of ride times,” Giaramita said. “Parents can find information regarding their child ‘s new route in their Parent Portal Account.”
Giaramita said that using fewer buses could mean that drivers won’t have to do double runs, which is when they drop students off and then go back on another route. That should help more students get to school on time. Recently, Giaramita said that as many as 10 buses were delayed about an hour in getting students to school.
The county school division is down about 12 drivers, an improvement from a few weeks ago when it needed 20. That includes relief drivers and for extracurricular programs. An upcoming training class will have at least five people, Giaramita said, and another four drivers are expected to return from sick leave in the near future.