Hundreds of Charlottesville City Schools students and their families are having to figure out how to get to school as the school system enters another year with limited bus drivers.
As the school year began last week, 723 kids had yet to receive a bus assignment. That number grew in the first week of classes. As of Tuesday afternoon, 819 students were on the waitlist. Another 1,300 have been denied a bus seat due to their proximity to their school.
City Schools has been embracing its new reality for the second year now. The school division opened last school year with only six bus drivers and hundreds of kids who were left to figure out how to get to school without a bus.
A year later and City Schools has yet to fill all their bus driver positions. The school system started the year with 12 drivers. It needs 24 to run efficiently.
“It’s like banging your head against the wall. We’ve been talking about this over and over again,” School Board member Jennifer McKeever said at an Aug. 3 meeting. “We know the demands that these jobs require, and we’re demanding a lot from them. It’s frustrating to hear these concerns year after year.”
Many school districts across the state and country are experiencing record shortages that have led to students being denied bus seats, or even schools being temporarily shut down. Albemarle County Public Schools was short enough drivers at the start of the year that around 1,000 students who asked for a bus didn’t get one.
In Charlottesville, the pupil bus system is run by Charlottesville Area Transit, not the school district. The transit system was able to keep the drivers who worked until the end of the previous school year, but it won’t be enough, said Kim Powell, chief operations officer for City Schools. The 2022-2023 school year ended with approximately 100 students on the waitlist, but the number swelled to 819 after the first day of school.
More about the bus driver shortage
As of Tuesday, about 1,400 students have a seat on a Charlottesville school bus.
Garland Williams, director of CAT, did not respond to multiple requests for comment by the time of publishing.
Steven Hicks, Charlottesville’s newly appointed deputy city manager, said at an Aug. 21 City Council meeting that CAT could potentially hire an additional six drivers who are currently undergoing onboarding and training. That would bring the number of drivers to 20 (the “magic” number in order to address all Charlottesville school bussing needs) by September or October.
The market for bus drivers is competitive, said Powell. CAT starts its pay at $22.26 an hour, according to the official job listing. The rate is fairly average when compared to other surrounding school districts. Applicants must apply for their commercial driver’s license, the kind given to drive buses and other 16-plus passenger vehicles and complete a minimum of 24 hours of in-class and six hours of in-bus training with no children.
“What is special about driving a school bus — the opportunity to work with young students — is also what makes it unique and difficult to recruit for,” said Powell in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow.
As CAT continues to struggle to fully staff its pupil bus system, City Schools Superintendent Royal Gurley is pushing for the district to take over more of the service. The school district hired a third-party company, Denver-based School Bus Logistics, to handle the routes, as mentioned at the Aug. 3 meeting. That was previously done by an analyst within CAT who has since left the position.
Gurley is also pushing to make bus drivers City Schools employees rather than CAT employees. Superintendent Royal Gurley said the school system is “very close” to having bus drivers work for the school district. It could happen as soon as the 2024-2025 school year. If the transition were to pan out, bus drivers could earn school district benefits with their contracts, which the district hopes would entice more drivers. Charlottesville Tomorrow was unable to learn from CAT what benefits drivers currently have.
In the meantime, the school system is doubling down on its Safe Routes to School program, or the initiative that is helping 1,200 or so students who live within designated walking zones, walk or bike to school. When these families register their child to school, they are told that they are within a “family responsibility zone.” That is within 0.75 miles from most of the elementary schools, and 1.25 miles for Walker Upper Elementary School, Buford Middle School and Charlottesville High School.
Students within the family responsibility zones are encouraged to walk or use modes such as bikes and scooters to get to school.
Some students are entitled to a bus, regardless of how close they live to the school. Students who are disabled and students who are houseless are required by state and federal law to have seats on the bus.
The new walking routes can be long for some students. Select Charlottesville High School students will have to walk just shy of two miles to get to school. And for those students within walk zones but who do not live near a safe walk path, such as active railroads, City Schools are asking their parents to find an alternative form of transportation.
“It’s like banging your head against the wall. We’ve been talking about this over and over again. It’s frustrating to hear these concerns year after year.”-School Board member Jennifer McKeever
The zones are not new to the schools either. For years, and namely prior to the pandemic, elementary students who lived less than a third of a mile, and secondary students who lived 0.75 miles from their schools were told to find alternate transportation, said Amanda Korman, a spokesperson for City Schools. The zones were expanded at the start of last year.
City Schools has also hired a number of crossing guards to manage the busier intersections, such as the one on Cherry Avenue and Tenth Street SW in front of Buford Middle School. Ten crossing guards, and two substitutes, are to work the intersections this year.
City Schools invested in bettering the walking paths to students last year. Elementary students in neighborhoods such as Westhaven and Kindlewood Apartments have “walking school buses,” or walking groups with a designated staffer, to get them to school safely. The school division worked with the city to lower speed limits, add signage to make drivers more aware of walking students and make more sidewalk connections.
A major project officials are doing is implementing traffic cameras at three schools Clark Elementary School (or Cherry Avenue), Johnson Elementary School (Monticello Avenue) and Buford Middle School (also Cherry Avenue) by this fall, said Ben Chambers, transit planning manager for CAT, at an Aug. 10 Zoom meeting with City Schools, CAT and Liveable CVILLE.
There are about 69 projects in total left to complete out of the 148 identified, said Chambers.
Students at Walker Upper Elementary School, Buford Middle School and Charlottesville High School are also encouraged to take CAT to school. Charlottesville transit adjusted certain routes that have stops near the three schools.
Charlottesville schools are prioritizing students who cannot get to school without a bus. To ensure an accurate record for those taking the bus, families who have not expressed immense need will automatically be placed on a waitlist. Korman said the school is directly reaching out to families who have yet to register their child and who they’ve suspected are in need of a bus.
Some parents worried about the effects the bus driver shortage had on chronic absenteeism, or students who missed 10% or more of school days. Almost 19% of students — 806 in total — were chronically absent in the 2021-2022 school year and 983 of students were chronically absent during the 2022-2023 school year.
Chronic absenteeism is a result of a number of issues, Korman said, but City Schools suspect pupil transportation only contributes to a portion of that percentage.
“Without having done a statistical analysis, we can’t say this had no impact on attendance,” said Korman. “But we know that essentially we’re glad it wasn’t stark.”