Berta Sevillano looked down at her phone on an early November afternoon. She thought it was a notification from her child’s school telling her that the bus was going to be late again.
The text was for something else. She breathed a sigh of relief.
This is a common occurrence for Sevillano. Like many families in the Southwood Mobile Home Park, her children frequently arrive home late. The delays can range from a few minutes to a few hours.
Some bus delays are so bad, Sevillano was told to either figure out a way to pick up her children or expect them home hours late.
“It’s really difficult,” she said, speaking in Spanish.
These delays are happening because Albemarle County Public Schools doesn’t have enough bus drivers to man all its routes.
Albemarle schools are currently staffing 127 drivers and need 33 more, according to the most recent transportation update. Home to school drivers, which the county school system said they’re in most need of, is short 17 drivers.
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The county has three new drivers that are set to start sometime in January. It will help, school officials say. But it won’t solve the problem.
While the district may be short just a few drivers, the unfilled vacancies still amount to hundreds of students arriving at school late.
During the week of Oct. 31, 63 students arrived at school more than an hour late. More than 320 students were between 16 minutes to more than an hour past the first bell. Additionally, about 1,365 Albemarle students reached school between one to 15 minutes late.
The district does not track how many students are late returning home, though says those numbers are probably worse.
The delays are being felt by students and families all across the county.
Nazia Mohammad’s youngest son’s school year got off to a tricky start. For the first couple of weeks, the mother and her son would walk to their neighborhood bus stop promptly at 7:24 a.m.
Most days the two would wait a couple of minutes, other days ten. Some days, thirty minutes.
He’s missed three days of school this year so far. The Greer Elementary School student wasn’t sick, nor did he have an emergency, the bus just never came.
The family does not have access to a car and has to lean on neighbors for alternate transportation.
“This is so confusing,” Mohammad said.
What we’re doing is not sustainable in a normal school year. I mean, if we were fully staffed, we wouldn’t be doing routes like this. But we’re just looking at, what can we do?—Renee DeVall, routing and planning manager for Albemarle County Public Schools
Clare Ruday goes through something similar. Every day, she gets a phone call that her son’s bus is going to be late coming home.
Ruday’s son attends Burley Middle School, which is a 15-minute drive without traffic. The morning bus came late a few times at the start of the school year but has mellowed out.
But, every day he takes the bus home, he’s an hour late, she said.
“If we weren’t lucky enough to have the option of alternate transportation, Grey would spend almost nine and a half hours from start to finish getting to and from school,” said Ruday. That means two and a half hours on, or waiting for, a bus.
Part of the issue is that Albemarle is not scaling back its service. The district is not required to offer all students bus service — Charlottesville City Schools does not due to its driver shortage. But with a county spanning 726 square miles, officials say it is important.
“We don’t refuse transportation to none of our students,” said Charmane White, deputy director of transportation for the Albemarle school district. “You may be delayed coming to school, but you’re not refused transportation.”
The kids who experience the brunt of the delays are those who are on “open routes,” or one in which the county doesn’t have an assigned bus driver. At least 15 routes are open. The route to Southwood Mobile Home Park, which is predominantly Latino, is a notable example.
In order to pick up kids on those open routes, drivers are doing something they call “doubling back.” They complete their first route and drop those kids at school on time, then heading back out to do a second “open” route. The students on the second route often arrive late.
After the school year began, the transportation department worked to reduce or even out out the delays among all students by reshuffling its more than 500 routes.
“My Southwood community, that bus was open, it was an open route with no driver,” said Renee DeVall, routing and planning manager for the school system. “That route was being double-backed, which could have taken an hour. So that means my Southwood kids were missing an hour. They cannot walk to school, they cannot bike to school.”
When the school system realized this, it swapped that route with one closer to the school, sending drivers to Southwood first, not second. That meant the children on the other route now often arrive at school a few minutes late — but not nearly as late as the Southwood kids were.
DeVall and her team repeated this effort at schools with open routes across the county.
“What we’re doing is not sustainable in a normal school year,” DeVall said. “I mean, if we were fully staffed, we wouldn’t be doing routes like this. But we’re just looking at, what can we do?”
The situation becomes even more complicated when drivers are sick or have to miss work. On those days, many students are more than an hour late.
“I could show you my high school routes and it looks like a mad spiderweb,” DeVall said. “So if you take one of these routes, and you pluck it, it’s gone. Now all these other routes have to collapse to go get it. It’s all a chain reaction.”
These route changes are happening almost daily, and require near round-the-clock surveillance to prevent as many delays as possible, DeVall said.
The school district notifies families at least twice when a route changes. However, Devall said the school system cannot guarantee that every parent will get that notification.
That is certainly the case in Southwood, where parents frequently send their children to the bus stop only to wait for extended periods of time unsure if the bus is late — or was early.
“Last week, my daughter went to catch the bus in the morning and it never came,” a woman who lives in Southwood said, speaking in Spanish. She asked to remain anonymous. “Luckily, my neighbor offered to drive her to school.”
The only real solution to the frequent delays and widespread confusion is to hire more drivers, DeVall said. But, that’s been a slow process.
Training for prospective drivers takes one to two months. First, pupil drivers must complete a classroom training in which they prepare for a series of exams to obtain their commercial driver’s license. Once drivers obtain licenses, they are trained with a skilled driver for another month before being assigned to a route.
The next set of drivers will not start until January, White said. And even then, the district will still be short at least 13 home to school drivers.
In an attempt to entice more applicants, the Albemarle County School Board voted unanimously on Oct. 27 to raise driver starting pay to $21.50 an hour.
Previously, Albemarle’s starting pay for bus drivers was $16.52.
The raise surpasses Charlottesville’s current pay for drivers. Last month, Charlottesville City Council increased the pay for all transit and pupil drivers in the city to $21 an hour.
In response to the city’s move, Albemarle school board members scurried for a similar pay increase.
Giaramita said the school system also bought five Type-A buses, which are small buses that hold up to 16 students. These smaller buses don’t require a commercial driver’s license to operate, making the hiring process for those drivers quicker.
The move helps, but with almost 10,000 Albemarle students taking a bus, the effect is limited.
Similar to Charlottesville, students who live within a certain distance from their school are recommended to a walking route. Elementary students in the zones are expected to walk about half a mile to school, whereas students in secondary schools walk up to a mile.
Again, this has a limited impact. Albemarle County spans 726 square miles, which means walking is not a viable option for many county students.
In spite of their efforts, county school officials don’t expect to hire enough drivers to solve the problem this year. In fact, Giaramita said, he expects delays will continue well into the next school year.