Kids seated on the school bus floor on their way to a Prince William County middle school because of overcrowding. A confused driver in Manassas dropping elementary school sisters off half a mile from their home, leaving them to be shepherded home by a kind woman in the neighborhood. And delays, lots of delays.
These are among the stories parents have told InsideNoVa about the school transportation situation in the area during the early weeks of the school year.
School division heads in Prince William County Public Schools and elsewhere have said that bus times and the transportation situation broadly have improved and will continue to do so as the year continues, but divisions all over the area have struggled to fill vacant bus driver positions and are getting creative to attract new operators.
During the summer, the Prince William school system released a video showing School Board members packed into a school bus and Vice Chair Loree Williams behind the wheel calling for people to apply to become a driver.
In Fauquier County, meanwhile, the school division is holding an event later this month during which potential applicants can test-drive a bus on site. “Have you ever considered driving a bus but aren’t sure it’s for you?” the notice for the event reads.
School officials said students were not required to sit on the bus floor in the incident involving a Bull Run Middle School route. The bus was full, the division said, but no more than three to a seat. School officials said they have created a new bus route to resolve the issue.
And in Manassas, a School Board member told the parent of the two daughters who had been dropped off a ways from their home that the driver was being reassigned, which satisfied the parent’s concerns. But early pick-ups and late drop-offs have persisted for many as some drivers are covering more than one route.
So far, the Prince William school system says 31 new hires have completed in-class driver training during the fiscal year that began in July. Of those, seven have completed their commercial driver’s license permit, and the division still has 106 vacancies. The school’s recruiting arm held a hiring event Friday at Lord Fairfax Community College in Warrenton.
Manassas City Public Schools, which is much smaller, has filled nearly all of its previous driver openings.
Paying drivers more
The competition has also led to pay increases. Fairfax County Public Schools recently increased the hourly wage for first-year bus drivers from about $19 an hour to almost $23 an hour. Prince William is advertising a starting rate of $21.34 an hour on its website for drivers, while the driver posting for Manassas schools shows a starting rate of $19.39.
It isn’t just Northern Virginia in need of drivers. A nationwide survey by three school transportation industry associations found that the dearth of drivers spans the country. In the Northeast, 79% of responding school divisions said they had altered service due to a shortage of drivers, while 66% of respondents in the South reported the same thing.
“As school districts across the country return to in-person learning and COVID continues to have an impact on education in general and school transportation scheduling and logistics in particular, the shortage of school bus drivers has become conspicuous,” said Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation Executive, in a news release. “But let’s be clear – this is not a new problem. Nor is it easy to solve.”
Industry experts have speculated that a number of forces are causing the shortage, such as the fact that many divisions furloughed drivers during the pandemic only to find that rehiring them wasn’t as easy as they’d hoped.
Additionally, disruptions to many departments of motor vehicles made acquiring a commercial driver’s license more difficult last year. And once someone obtains a commercial license, more lucrative opportunities may be available in shipping and mass transit.
More parent pick-ups
Neither Prince Wiliam nor Manassas furloughed drivers during the pandemic, but there was some disruption to the normal pay schedule for bus operators last summer. According to Prince William School Board Chair Babur Lateef, a number of drivers rely on driving summer school students to maintain their income, and summer school was cancelled last year.
Delays aren’t just a result of the lack of drivers forcing divisions to double or triple up on bus routes. Anecdotally, everyone seems to agree that more parents have taken to driving their children to school than before the pandemic, likely out of concern for the virus.
Prince William and other divisions have tried to ease fears about buses by highlighting that windows have been kept open for ventilation and masks are required to be worn onboard. But still, the additional traffic generated by parents has further delayed bus drop-offs and pick-ups.
“Our buses are moving better than before. Things are continuing to improve and we’re having less email traffic about people unhappy about the pick-up times and the drop-off times,” Lateef told InsideNoVa. “We are still having trouble getting in and out of buildings during the morning rush because so many parents are still wanting to drive their kids. That continues to be an issue.”
Prince William is among school divisions in the state that have implemented a real-time bus tracking system for families to know when their child’s bus is nearby. However, one parent told InsideNoVa that the system wasn’t always consistent in its performance and at one point caused concern when it briefly suggested their child had been dropped off before he arrived.