More Charlottesville students will be able to ride the school bus in a few weeks when the city adds three routes, according to a report recently presented to the School Board.
Those routes should open up 414 more seats, cutting the waitlist down to about 870 students from 1,286. Division officials said they are prioritizing students who can’t get to school any other way.
The city has hired six new drivers in the last month and has nine new applicants, said Garland Williams, director of Charlottesville Area Transit. That group will start a training class Sept. 13. Williams told board members that the goal is to hire 35 full-time drivers and that they are currently 20 short of that goal.
Williams said his team is working to recruit and hire drivers as fast as possible. Marketing efforts promoting a $2,400 bonus for new drivers have expanded to Harrisonburg and the Richmond area, he said. The city also is providing full-time health insurance coverage for employees who don’t work full-time as part of an incentive package.
Attendance among students on the waitlist has been spotty, Kim Powell, the school division’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said at last week’s board meeting. However, she’s still trying to figure out how many families — if any — haven’t been able to make it to school at all because of a transportation issue.
“Something that I hope, that after we get the next round of routes in place, we can do a better assessment of that to understand where the issues still are for students who are just absolutely not able to get to school, and we’ll try to find creative solutions to help with that,” she said.
For students who are struggling to get school whom the division knows about, school staff and community groups are helping out. School Board Chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres is driving several students herself to and from school.
“There are a lot of people in your school division who are doing everything they can, using personal vehicles and so forth, to just help everyone that we can,” Powell told board members.
Later in the presentation, Larson-Torres said getting students to school has been a “huge effort” involving principals, central office staff members and other employees.
“I do want to again acknowledge just all of the work and the teamwork from community members who are helping out with driving and picking up kids, teachers who are driving before and after school to take kids,” she said.
The division has been preparing for limited school bus space after facing a similar situation when in-person classes resumed in March. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a national and statewide driver shortage and reduced capacity on the buses.
This year, two students are allowed per seat, down from the typical three. Albemarle County’s school buses are running at normal capacity.
Meanwhile, demand for school transportation has returned to pre-pandemic levels, when an average of 2,200 students rode the bus each day.
“That was our norm, and that was on some pretty crowded buses because the driver shortage is not new,” Powell said.
Since school started Aug. 25, the city has been able to transport about 1,000 students with 12 drivers on staff. Some people currently driving CAT buses who have the necessary S endorsement on their driver’s license also are helping out.
The school division contracts with the city to transport its students.
Williams said the training process has been compressed from two months to about three weeks, though some aspects, such as the background check and testing with the Department of Motor Vehicles, are outside his department’s control.
The division’s contract currently calls for 30 drivers, but Williams said the city actually needs about 40 to 42 to allow employees to take time off.
“Our margins have been razor-thin in the past,” he said. “We can’t continue to operate that and make sure that we have reliable transportation services for our children.”
Part of building a more sustainable model for school transportation means developing a year-round recruiting program.
“We are all trying to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” Williams said. “There’s no easy button, unfortunately, so we need to grow our way out of this and put a plan in place.”
Families who need transportation should reach out to their school’s principal. As part of the process to add routes, city staff members are checking the current bus lists to account for students who have moved or left the school system. The first set of routes was drawn up in July using student data available at the time.
“Right now, what they are trying to do to pull in all this data and re-route everyone to be as efficient as we possibly can, it’s a Herculean effort to do it in this compressed timeframe,” Powell said. “It’s a ton of data that has to be combed through and it’s really hard because our students don’t sit still. They leave the district, they move within the community, and that adds to the challenges.”
Principals are checking lists for the new routes to make sure bus seats are assigned to students in the greatest need of rides, Powell said.
The division has tweaked its student information system, PowerSchool, to keep track of students’ bus information, a feature that didn’t exist before and one that Powell said should help staff work through the waitlist.
Currently, the division has prioritized students who are in programs for which transportation can’t be a barrier, such as preschool, as well as siblings and those who can’t get to school any other way.
“There are a lot of families who need transportation that don’t follow those categories,” Powell said. “It’s just very hard for them to get their students to school because of their work situations or whatever.”