With not enough bus spots for all Charlottesville elementary students heading to school Monday, schools and parents scrambled to organize carpools, put together walking groups and figure out other alternative modes of transportation for students.
Parent-teacher organizations sought volunteers to supervise children walking to school, and local nonprofits are using their buses to transport students. Volunteers also worked to clean up parts of the Rivanna Trail, which some students will use to walk to Greenbrier Elementary. Meanwhile, the city and school division are working to hire more drivers in order to add more bus routes.
“Everybody’s been turning over every single stone we can to try to alleviate this problem,” said Garland Williams, director of Charlottesville Area Transit. “We think we’re pretty close on getting a third-party contract, so we’re going to keep our fingers crossed. We don’t want to jinx it, but we’re hopefully rounding the bend and hope to get something in place.”
Because of a shortage of drivers and the space constrictions on the buses due to COVID-19 precautions, the division will be able to transport 653 students Monday, and 143 are on the waitlist, according to a presentation at Thursday’s School Board meeting.
Clark Elementary had the longest waitlist among the elementaries, at 29, while 46 students were on the waitlist for Walker Upper Elementary as of Thursday.
“It’s definitely an equity issue,” School Board Chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said. “I think everybody is aware of that. It’s a huge concern.”
In a November survey, parents of 934 students requested bus transportation and 373 said they couldn’t go without it. Last school year, 2,742 students went to school via the bus, not including preschoolers.
About 2,100 students are going to school in-person as part of Option A, which includes four days of classes for preschoolers through sixth-graders. That figure is based off the November survey. No newer information about the number and demographics of students attending in-person has been released.
More bus routes will be available March 15, city officials said, which will help with the waitlist.
The division has been encouraging families to either drive or walk their children to school, and the city has provided walking and biking routes for the schools. The scale of the transportation challenge became apparent in recent weeks as parents learned that the bus wouldn’t be picking up their children.
That message led parent-teacher organizations and nonprofits to start finding solutions until more bus spots are available.
The central CCS PTO Reopening Fund distributed $3,378 to the pupil transportation program to help fund the cost of a qualified contract driving service that will be used to address special transportation needs, according to a report provided at Thursday’s meeting. Donations to the fund are being accepted at ccsptofund.org/donate.
Johnson Elementary is paying Abundant Life Ministries $2,000 from its reopening funds to hire a driver and use the organization’s bus to transport students to and from the school, per the report. Disbursements from the school reopening funds are made by a school committee.
At Greenbrier, 25 students are on the waitlist, including a group of students who live on Michie Drive. One option for those students is to traverse a 0.8-mile section of the Rivanna Trail to the intersection of Brandywine and Greenbrier drives as part of the roughly one-mile walk to school.
That path includes a creek that students cross with the help of a cable tied between two trees. Depending on the weather, the creek may or not be passable.
Tom Connaughton, an English as Second Language teacher at Greenbrier, would lead the students to and from school as part of the current plan, and ponchos have been secured to protect them in light to moderate rain. He and other volunteers worked to clean up the trail Saturday, covering up the muddier portions with sawed tree branches.
International Neighbors stepped in last week to provide transportation for this first week, so that walking path won’t be needed right away. The organization, which set up a virtual learning center for area immigrants and refugees, is paying a driver $50 a day to drive a bus. To support the effort, donate at bit.ly/2Oxp04w.
Holly Hatcher, with the PTO at Johnson Elementary, said at Thursday’s meeting that the group was told two weeks ago that the school would reopen with one bus, down for the typical three.
“We were asked to organize a volunteer corps of parents and assume liability for helping other parents get their children to school safely,” she said, adding that the parents are committed to doing their part. “Unfortunately, we’ve learned that the transportation issue is a division-wide issue.”
For the short-term, Hatcher asked the school division to work with the city government and police department to ensure that the larger community is aware of the return to school.
“And that we do everything we can as a community to keep the increased number of students walking to and being dropped off at school safe,” she said.
Long-term, she wants the division to address the long-standing issues with the driver shortage and turnover and lead a community conversation about how to fix the system.
“While we understand that student transportation is a complex issue, the current system is inequitable and unsustainable,” she said.
Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins has been raising the alarm about the issue of transportation for several months.
“We have some students whose families do not get transportation and will absolutely need a seat on the bus,” Atkins said at the School Board’s Feb. 22 meeting. “So we’re asking every family who can transport, please do so that we will have the capacity and the seating space to transport those students who absolutely need to be on the bus.”
Bus spots were prioritized for students in preschool, who have special needs or who need more academic supports. To maximize the capacity of the buses, siblings of priority students also were given spots because they could ride in the seat next to their sibling. Access to the routes or stops is also a consideration for waitlist decisions.
“We’re not able to route people who want the bus right now,” said Kim Powell, assistant superintendent for finance and operations. “We have to focus on people who need the bus.”
Otherwise, mitigation measures call for one student per seat. That does mean that students won’t be six feet apart on the buses. However, windows will be open and masks will be required to limit the spread of the virus.
“But with all the other mitigation measures in place, that’s a reasonable tradeoff and one that needs to be made,” Powell said of not spacing students six feet apart. “It’s what the other school districts that are open have been doing.”
In November, school officials had thought the division could only transport about 600 students. At the time, officials described a driver shortage and other issues hampering their ability to take more students to and from school.
“The picture looks grim, but it’s not as grim as it was,” said Sherri Eubanks, director of pupil transportation for the city.
The division contracts with the city to provide student transportation. Initially, the city looked at contracting with a company to bring in more drivers, but that idea hasn’t come to fruition yet.
Some schools only have one bus route while the only Clark Elementary bus is being used twice for a second route. The city can run 10 routes at the elementary level, for Walker Upper and Buford Middle and for Charlottesville High School, Eubanks said.
The city has lost 12 bus drivers since September, and potential drivers have seen long wait times at the Department of Motor Vehicles, preventing them from taking the necessary test. To drive a school bus, one must have a commercial driver’s license and the S endorsement.
“So until we change something on a state level with DMV, it’s going to be impossible for for us to get people in there,” Eubanks said.
Five potential drivers weren’t able to stay in the interview process because of the delay in getting an appointment at the DMV to take the writing test for the endorsement. One applicant was told the soonest he could get an appointment would be in July.
“They simply can’t wait that long for employment,” Powell said. “… That’s five total drivers, and it would make a huge difference for us right now.”
“I just find that so unacceptable,” board member Sherry Kraft said of the DMV issues. “It’s absurd to have that be the bottleneck when we have people who we think will be good candidates.”
In response to the School Board’s discussion, Del. Sally Hudson, D-57th, said she reached out to the commissioner of the DMV to work on finding solutions to the delay.
The school bus driver position is part time, and drivers get some health and retirement benefits, but not the same as a full-time employee. Atkins has wanted to provide full-time benefits for employees who work fewer than 40 hours. In Albemarle County, bus drivers qualify for benefits and retirement if they drive at least six hours a day.
Eubanks said Williams has “fought tooth and nail” to get full-time positions for pupil and CAT drivers. CAT drivers with the S endorsement do help with student transportation when able.
CAT, which is operating fare free right now, is an option for families to get to school. Williams added that his department is looking at the public transportation system to better facilitate movement to and from schools. At the very least, CAT buses are an option for families to cut down on some walking.