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With fewer buses, students in city and county hit the road to school

Area schools are opening up for the year on Wednesday, but there will be fewer big yellow buses and lot more pairs of feet taking students to class.

A shortage of bus drivers across the commonwealth and in Charlottesville and Albemarle County is leading to fewer bus routes and longer bus rides, some as long as 90 minutes or more in the rural areas of the county.

School officials in the city have urged students and their parents to hit the sidewalk or ride bicycles to school in the wake of reduced bus routes. That is not likely to change any time soon.

“We are facing a significant shortage of school bus drivers as we begin the 2022-23 school year,” Charlottesville Public Schools officials said on the district’s webpage. “Our old transportation model is not going to work for this fall or the future, and we are committed to working together to find solutions.”

As of July, Albemarle County was still looking for about a dozen bus drivers to take students to and from school. The school division’s transportation department had 37 vacancies.

As school divisions and transit agencies across the country struggle to fill vacancies, county schools superintendent Matthew Haas told the county school board in July that a new approach will be needed.

“We have to focus on restructuring transportation to lower expectations,” Haas said, adding that the pandemic exacerbated a long-standing problem. “For many years, we tried to pretend or maybe think that some force of nature will bring us bus drivers.”

The shortage of bus drivers has been a national issue this year from Hawaii to Arizona to North Carolina. A few days ago, Chicago Public Schools in Illinois had 400 vacant bus driver positions four days before the school year was scheduled to start, according to the school district.

Chicago schools were trying to increase wage to $20 an hour for those with a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, which is required to operate a school bus.

In Charlottesville, bus drivers made between $16.51 and $18.32 an hour to start, though many typically started at $17.99 an hour. Full-time healthcare benefits are available. Albemarle County full-time bus drivers start at $17.18. Drivers that work four hours a day are eligible for full-time benefits. School bus drivers for both systems receive free CDL training.

With hundreds more Charlottesville students expected to walk or bike to school, community members put pressure on city officials to improve intersections and crosswalks to ensure a safer trip to and from school.

The changes sought included repainting crosswalks around schools and on walking routes, improved signs to alert drivers to stop for pedestrians, reduced speed limits and expanded school zones.

Some changes have included replacing traffic lights at some intersections with four-way stops and narrowing roads from four to two lanes.

Charlottesville school officials said in June that they would expand school walk zones and make fewer students eligible for bus service. At the time the city had a third of the drivers it needed to drive the same routes in 2022-23 that it did the previous year.

Elementary students will now walk up to three-quarters of a mile to school. Those who attend Walker Upper Elementary, Buford Middle and Charlottesville High will walk 1.25 miles.

City school officials have been working during the summer to get the word out to parents, students and drivers through videos on social media and community gatherings.

“These distances are on the lower range of schools across the region and country, and these expanded walking, or ‘family responsibility’ zones, are an important part of addressing the bus driver shortage,” city school officials said on the district website.

“In a few cases with CHS students, we have extended the walk zone as high as 1.6 miles if the path is very walkable,” officials said. “We have stayed within or close to our projected time estimates for the walk.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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