A school bus accident on Rio Road and Hillsdale Drive last Wednesday has raised questions about the shortage of bus drivers in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
The bus driver was cited for failing to yield while making a left turn, striking a motorcyclist. The motorcyclist was treated for minor injuries. Twenty students were on the school bus, but none were injured, according to police.
It is not clear what will happen to the bus driver, who was driving for Albemarle County Public Schools. Terminating her would add to the system’s 31 vacant driving positions. To be fully staffed, the county schools need 160 drivers.
The shortage was exacerbated by COVID-19, but the issue predates the pandemic, said Phil Giaramita, public affairs and strategic communications officer for the school system.
“Hiring and staffing has been an ever-present challenge,” said Giaramita.
One reason is that the positions are part-time by nature: a couple of hours in the morning and a couple in the afternoon. Competition from other schools and businesses is also to blame, Giaramita said. Other openings may be full time or offer higher starting salaries than county’s hourly wage of $16.36.
The school system is conducting a pay review with hopes of increasing bus drivers’ starting wages. They also intend to convert some positions to full-time gigs.
Requests for transportation in the county schools have increased almost 25% this academic year. About 8,000 students’ families asked for bus service for the 2021-2022 school year. For 2022-2023, more than 10,000 students’ families requested transportation, according to a report from the schools.
That’s likely attributable to lower rates of COVID transmission. Last school year, the schools encouraged families to make other arrangements to get their kids to school in order to reduce the spread of the virus.
Still, Giaramita expects actual ridership to level out around 7,000 students. That’s typical for the school system.
County school officials have not expanded walk zones like Charlottesville City Schools. County zones are currently one-half of a mile for elementary school students and one mile for middle and high school students.
Albemarle County is too large and not walkable enough for the system to expand walk zones, Giaramita said.
Charlottesville schools decided to increase the walk zone to three-quarters of a mile for elementary students and one and a quarter miles for secondary students. Some students at Charlottesville High School have a walk zone of more than a mile and a half, about a 30 minute commute on foot.
Now, 1,100 students live in walk zones—an increase of 800.
According to the transportation page of the Charlottesville City Schools website, “the bus driver shortage will not be fixed by better advertising, pay, benefits, or bonuses (the city has tried). The city needs 40 school bus drivers but expects to have eight.”
The City of Charlottesville is responsible for hiring school bus drivers rather than the school district.
Charlottesville City Schools students who requested bus service but don’t have a seat are currently on a waitlist. Almost half of the students eligible for bus service are on the waitlist: 900 students ride the bus, while 800 are waiting to be assigned to one.
“I know the city is actively recruiting and training drivers in the hopes of reducing the waitlist significantly this fall,” said Amanda Korman, a spokesperson for city schools. But it’s not clear if or when that will happen.
“On the whole we have many more students walking, biking, scootering, carpooling, and taking the CAT bus,” Korman said.
Both the city and the county schools are considering adding mini-buses to ameliorate the shortage. Smaller buses don’t require drivers to have a commercial driving license, which in turn makes it easier to hire and train drivers.
The county plans to have smaller buses on the road in January. They also aim to consolidate routes to reduce the number of drivers who have to complete their normal route and then go back to collect students on a separate route and drop them off at school.
Drivers do between 14 and 19 of the so-called double backs a day. Students have been up to an hour late to school as a result, Giaramita said.
The schools are working with local governments for solutions. City school officials are trying to make students’ walk paths safer with new crosswalks and better signage.
The county schools, meanwhile, are trying to change rules about retirement. A retired state employee must currently wait a year before they take another job that adds to their retirement benefits. The county is talking with state legislators about a bill that would shrink that period and encourage retired drivers to come back to work.