Catherine Gonzalez became a bus driver for the Albemarle County school division while she was nine months pregnant. Three years later, she’s still at it and getting ready for another year behind the wheel.
“I really love kids,” she said. “I think that’s just my basic reason why I want to drive a bus. Also it’s fun. You get to drive this big old 40-foot thing.”
When she started driving after having a baby, she brought her child on the bus with her, which saved her money on child care. The division installed a car seat on the bus for her and does so for other parents with young children to accommodate them.
The Albemarle division is touting such perks and other benefits as it seeks to hire seven drivers for the coming school year — that’s down from 19 vacancies earlier in the year. With a training class of six drivers starting this week and more capacity on school buses, the division seems to be in good shape for the start of the school year, Aug. 23.
“Things are looking hopeful,” said Charmane White, deputy director of transportation for the division. “But usually when we get ready to start school, that’s when things come up, or people make a decision like, ‘OK, I don’t know if I want to continue doing this.’ So we don’t lean off. We continue training and recruiting, looking for individuals who may be interested in transporting our children.”
White said the job is ideal for people who want to work with children, give back to the community and grow in their career. White started as a bus driver and then rose through the ranks.
The school division has worked in recent years to improve pay and benefits for bus drivers and offer other incentives to address the near-constant shortage of drivers. However, White said the pandemic made the situation worse.
“Previously, we would have struggles with the recruitment process for one reason or another,” White said. “This time, we didn’t even have the applicants to even apply.”
White said the division has looked at implementing a hiring bonus similar to what Charlottesville is doing and other ideas to address the shortage. The division already offers a $1,500 performance bonus.
“We’re trying everything that we know, and we’re open to hearing from our community,” White said.
For this summer, White said she reached out to church leaders to see if anyone in their communities wanted to drive a bus.
Drivers in Albemarle County start at $16.20 to $18.89, depending on experience and other factors, and are eligible for full-time benefits, including retirement. They also can drive up to eight hours a day.
To drive a school bus in Virginia, one must have a commercial driver’s license and the S endorsement. New hires are paid while training. Beyond the CDL training, the division trains drivers on student management to help them prepare for various situations that can arise on buses.
The training and licensing process takes about 35 days, White said. That includes a written knowledge test, which is required for someone to earn their CDL learner’s permit. In a change from previous years, trainees don’t have to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to take that test. Instead, the school division can administer it at the transportation department.
During the pandemic, interested drivers experienced lengthy delays in setting up an appointment to take that test. Having the ability to administer it remotely speeds up the process, White said.
The county school division has been able to administer the road test for the license.
Jennifer Green, who trains bus drivers for the division, said she’s had a busy summer getting drivers ready for the school year. Training also includes behind-the-wheel time with students aboard.
Green said they work to relax any drivers who are initially nervous.
“Because we don’t want you to be so nervous out on the road,” she said. “This is a big bus. You’ve got cars, you’ve got people, and so we try our best to relax them.”
The division’s newer buses come equipped with air conditioning, backup cameras and side cameras for when they are turning or changing lanes, largely eliminating blind spots.
Green said she started driving a school bus in 1995 because she wanted to be on her son’s school schedule. Otherwise, she’d have to keep finding child care options when schools were out but she had to work.
Michael Giovanoli, who is finishing up his training and will be ready for the first day of school, said he wanted to drive a school bus because he likes getting up early and enjoys working with children.
“I have a tractor-trailer background, so driving vehicles isn’t new,” he said.
Still, he’s looking forward to getting the first day behind him.
“I was also fortunate that I drove the route … 15 times, so I now recognize my children and they recognize me,” he said, adding that the driver who had that route previously retired.
Gonzalez said the training was difficult, especially when it came to learning all of the parts of the bus, from under the hood to under the actual vehicle, but Green and other trainers made her feel comfortable.
“When I came into this, I was nine months pregnant,” she said. “I was out here in the sun under the bus, the whole eight yards and I had no confidence at all. … A lot of people said you aren’t going to be able to do this. If I can do it, anybody can do it.”