Virginia Schools Grapple with Bus Driver Shortage Exacerbated by the Pandemic

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Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) announced a starting pay increase from $17.21 to $20.21 per hour to attract bus drivers amid a national bus driver shortage. That combines with an already-in place $3,000 bonus, and was made possible by additional funding from Chesterfield County, the school and the county announced Monday.

“A national school bus driver shortage has led to transportation challenges at the start of the 2021-22 school year. Chesterfield school bus drivers are working long hours and driving multiple routes to get students to and from school, but dozens of school buses are sitting idle because of a lack of drivers,” a CCPS press release said.

Districts across Virginia are battling a driver shortage, part of a national trend that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey released Tuesday by several school transportation organizations found that of 1,500 respondents across the country, 65 percent said the bus driver shortage is their number one problem or concern, and 51 percent said the shortage was severe or desperate.

The Virginia Star asked industry and school district spokespeople for an explanation of the causes of driver shortages. Some of the reasons they listed included low pay and drivers retiring. COVID-19-related factors include bottlenecks at the DMV making it hard to train and qualify new drivers, the health risk to older drivers, extra COVID-19 federal benefits. Additionally, some people left the field for other jobs during school closures last year.

“This is not a new issue. It has aggregated over the last few years. One of the causes is that many drivers are retiring, the salary etc.,” Virginia Department of Education Executive Director of Communications Ken Blackstone said in an email. “School bus driver pay ranges from $14-$18 per hour and drivers normally do not work eight hours per day. By contrast, someone with a CDL can drive a dump truck for 8 hours per day making $20-$25 per hour.”

To explain the school bus driver shortage, National School Transportation Association Executive Director Curt Macysyn cited worker shortages across industries. “As we look forward to the end of the pandemic, we face the reality that this crisis has taken its toll on our country’s workforce. Hiring has been a challenge for many industries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings rose to an unprecedented 9.2 million in June,” he said.

“There are a number of factors causing this issue, but no easy solutions. The high levels of enhanced unemployment benefits and the child tax credit are compounding the problem. Many drivers are not returning because of COVID-19 related health concerns and vaccine hesitancy. Many school bus drivers fall into categories of high risk for severe illness related to COVID-19 and are now on leave of absence or permanently retired,” he said.

Gloucester County Public Schools Director of Transportation Tanya Deckard said, “The national school bus driver shortage has been an issue in the pupil transportation field for many years. Much of the problem stems from the amount of responsibility school bus drivers have, in comparison to the pay. Most school bus driving positions are part time. Many school bus drivers work five to seven hours daily, and only 180 days per year. On the peninsula the average hourly rate for a school bus driver is $14 – $17 per hour.”

She said, “The pandemic made matters much worse. With DMV offices closed or offering limited hours during the pandemic, School divisions were unable to have new bus drivers CDL road tested to get their licenses, older drivers nearing retirement chose to leave the field with concerns for their health, and finally without the availability of working for extra pay, by doing field trips, many drivers found other employment to make ends meet. This has left a gaping hole in the already strained school bus system.”

Macysyn recommended some strategies including inspiring civic-minded community members to help, using flexible scheduling to attract college students, and launching statewide recruiting campaigns.

Like CCPS, school districts across Virginia are aggressively hiring. Blackstone said the VDOE is implementing a program that allows rehiring retirees while they retain retirement benefits.

That hasn’t been enough. Deckard said her district had three routes with no drivers and they had to consolidate or remove the routes. Some districts in Northern Virginia have a hundred or more bus driver vacancies, ABC7 reported. Hampton Roads-area districts also have shortages, according to 13NewsNow.

CCPS has asked parents to drive their own kids to school to help address the shortage. That’s led to congestion outside schools as parents wait to pickup and drop off their kids, reported by VPM.

“Many schools are working to increase efficiencies, where possible, to student drop- off and pickup procedures to improve traffic and reduce the time families spend in line when transporting children to and from school. Additionally, the administration at each school is looking at traffic patterns to identify opportunities for improved pickup and drop-off procedures,” the district said in its Monday press release.

The shortage has also led to new business opportunities. NBC12 reports that former bus driver Cheryl Whalon is charging $180 for a month of driving kids to and from school in a minivan. She retired for health reasons after 23 years as a driver, and said drivers don’t get enough pay or hours. She’s already thinking of buying a second vehicle for her business.

“It’s pretty exciting, I’m getting a lot of phone calls,” Whalon told NBC12. “I have students at three different schools, which is a good start.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Tattnall County School bus” by Michael Rivera. CC BY-SA 4.0.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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