Richmond-area public schools are short roughly 270 bus drivers, collectively.
While most school districts have about two weeks to hire more drivers, Chesterfield County Public Schools on Friday wrapped up a first week of school plagued with bus delays.
School districts across the country already disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic are scrambling to find enough bus drivers. Some hope cash bonuses will lure candidates. Others are paying parents to drive their children to school. Pittsburgh Public Schools was forced to delay the school year.
The pandemic has exacerbated an existing shortage. Much of the nation’s bus driver workforce is older and more vulnerable to complications from the virus; districts across the country also furloughed drivers during virtual learning amid budget constraints.
Chesterfield is combating the shortage with incentives — a $500 bonus twice a year and smaller bonuses based on perfect driving and attendance — that fall short of the $1,200 to $3,000 bonuses Henrico County and Richmond are advertising. Henrico is also offering its existing $1,000 bonus to new drivers.
Chesterfield does pay the highest hourly rate in the region, starting at $17.21. Justin Smith, whose children attend county schools, points out that’s less than people with the commercial driver’s license required of school bus drivers can make in other jobs.
“Chesterfield loves to tout that ‘Well, our bus drivers are paid well compared to other bus drivers.’ Well, how much are they paid compared to other CDL [commercial driver’s license] drivers because they’re making about $7 less per hour. ... [So] if you’re looking for a job with a CDL license, being a bus driver probably is not going to be your first option,” he said.
Smith’s oldest daughter, who attends Providence Middle School, largely had an on-time bus last week. But his son and daughter at Providence Elementary had delays in the morning and afternoon. In the afternoon, they were arriving home anywhere between 90 minutes and two hours late.
Friends of Smith who drove their children to school last week sometimes spent an hour waiting to drop their kids off in the morning, he said.
“If we are indeed 100 bus drivers short like they are saying we are, I don’t think it gets better this year,” Smith said. “I feel for the people in transportation ... [but] I think at this point it’s damage control. There’s no fixing it; it’s a little too late.”
The district is “aggressively” recruiting bus drivers, with “several” currently in the midst of the hiring process, according to a Wednesday news release.
School officials did not respond to a request to interview Chesterfield’s student transportation director, Calvin Frye.
After first urging parents to drive their children to school a week before schools opened, schools Superintendent Merv Daugherty is now encouraging “everyone” to apply to be a bus driver, according to the Wednesday news release.
Cheryl Paulson and her ex-husband drove their two daughters, who attend Tomahawk Middle and Cosby High, respectively, to and from school the first week.
“Every single year, the buses have been a little nuts, especially in the morning ... but this is definitely the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Paulson, noting bus drivers need to figure out their routes each year.
Paulson’s oldest daughter found a ride to school to ensure she won’t be late. But one day she was still waiting for her bus past 4 p.m. and so her dad picked her up after waiting in a long pickup line at Tomahawk Middle. Paulson decided to buy her youngest a cellphone so they can keep in touch if the buses are running late in the afternoon.
After last year where roughly half of Chesterfield students returned to schools and the rest remained virtual, Paulson is surprised the district didn’t plan better for this year as a majority of students are back in school.
Chesterfield has roughly 62,000 in-person learning students, over 1,800 students enrolled in the K-8 Virtual Academy and 1,600 in the online course program, CCPSOnline, according to a schools spokesman.
On Friday afternoon, Paulson crossed her fingers that she wouldn’t have to wait in line for an hour at Cosby and that her middle schooler would arrive home at a decent hour.
“I apologize to our families for the stress and frustration that these transportation problems have caused at the start of the school year,” Daugherty said in a statement Wednesday. “Our bus drivers are vital to our school system, and I encourage everyone who wants to help children succeed and stay safe to apply to drive a school bus for CCPS.”
The system is having a third bus driver job fair on Sept. 30 from 4 to 8 p.m. at Manchester Middle School.
As Chesterfield bus drivers continue to work long hours and drive multiple routes, dozens of buses are sitting idle, the release states. Despite all that is being asked of bus drivers, without more of them, students are being picked up for school late and returned home late.
“There is no doubt that issues with transportation cause a ripple effect and create stress not just for our families but also for our bus drivers, teachers and school employees,” Daugherty said in the release.
On Thursday, the district shared a 1-minute video montage featuring pictures and clips of bus drivers, as well as students on and off buses.
The district gave suggestions for the school community to help with the bus driver shortage, including making supportive signs either in chalk, on a car window or a yard sign. Students can write thank-you notes to bus drivers and teachers, and anyone with ideas for improving student transportation can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Chester-based Grant Coffee Co. offered bus drivers a free cup of house coffee last week.
Chesterfield’s starting hourly rate is $17.21, followed by Richmond’s $16.85 rate, Hanover’s $15.75 and Henrico’s $14.91.
While leading the hourly rate, Chesterfield falls second to last for bonuses.
Henrico, facing a triple-digit shortage of bus drivers at 115 drivers, is offering a $1,000 bonus for inexperienced drivers, a $2,000 bonus for new drivers who have a commercial driver’s license, and a $3,000 bonus for those who have the endorsements that allow drivers to drive both school buses and passenger vehicles.
Lacking 20 drivers for its 200-bus fleet, Richmond Public Schools will now offer a $1,200 bonus for new drivers and a $2,200 bonus for existing drivers and new drivers who already have a commercial driver’s license.
Chesterfield drivers will receive a $500 bonus twice a year, in October and April, and can earn an additional $100 bonus each semester for safe driving and a monthly $50 bonus for perfect attendance. Hanover, which is short 34 bus drivers, does not provide driver bonuses, but the district does offer pay incentives for drivers who will drive additional bus routes.
This is the first year Chesterfield is offering two $500 bonuses for drivers.
Hanover offers part-time benefits for bus drivers, while the remaining districts offer full-time benefits.
Henrico and Hanover have potential drivers in the wing, with Henrico having between 30 and 40 new drivers and Hanover with six, according to the schools’ communications offices.