HISTORIC TRIANGLE — With students returning to school in-person, five days a week this upcoming year, local school divisions are trying to figure out how to get them there.
“Regionally, there is a critical shortage of bus drivers,” Daniel Keever, chief operating officer of Williamsburg-James City County Schools (WJCC) said during a July 13 school board meeting. “That critical shortage is also part of what’s going on in the Williamsburg-James City County community as well. We are critically short of drivers.”
With WJCC’s Return to Learn plan for the 2020-21 school year, which saw fewer students attending school in-person on a daily basis, the issue of driver shortages was less obvious.
Now, with WJCC intending for all students to return to school in-person, five days a week for the 2021-22 school year, the school system is trying to find a solution to what is now a significant problem.
Keever noted that in the last 10 months, WJCC has received 46 applicants from a bus driver job posting, but only eight have made it through the hiring process, obtained their Commercial Driver Licenses (CDL) and are currently on the division’s payroll.
The school district’s various advertising options to recruit bus drivers have included flyers, banners and job fairs.
Earlier this year, the division also offered a $500 bonus for all employees.
“Quite frankly, it’s not helped to the degree that we need it to help,” Keever said.
With 36 driver vacancies, WJCC does not anticipate those spots to be filled before the start of the school year.
As Keever pointed out, the issue is not the number of buses, but the lack of drivers.
WJCC’s Transportation Department maintains a total of 216 vehicles, 160 of which are school buses. The other 56 vehicles are used to transport students to and from Richmond, Newport News, York County and Hampton for specialized programs.
Keever noted that these special program buses are never at full capacity.
He said that the division is exploring the concept of contracting transportation services from outside company. ALC Schools to provide services for students identified as having special transportation needs, such as those with disabilities or experiencing homelessness.
This would allow the division to use the WJCC bus drivers that were assigned to out of zone routes to be used for grades kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) zoned routes.
“We feel like this is a stopgap measure to put us in position for 2021-22 to get started on time when that first bell rings on August 30,” Keever said.
Meanwhile, York County School Division (YCSD) is also facing a growing shortage of bus drivers.
YCSD continues to recruit drivers through summer job fairs and flyers, but it is not currently exploring contracting with an outside transportation service.
“At this time, the division does not have plans to contract for transportation services, but will continue to evaluate the demand and supply for student transportation and work to address the ongoing national driver shortage through recruiting efforts,” Katherine Goff, spokesperson for YCSD, said.
WJCC School Board Member Kyra Cook noted that raising pay for bus drivers could also help resolve the shortage issue.
The current hourly starting rate for a WJCC bus driver position for the 2021-2022 year is $15.24. The hourly starting rate is $15.49 for bus drivers in YCSD. In other districts, the starting hourly wage for school bus drivers are: $15.80 for Newport News Public Schools, $14.25 for Gloucester County Public Schools and $15.73 for Hampton City Schools.
The school board will vote on the recommendation at the Aug. 3 meeting.
Superintendent Dr. Olwen Herron said that the timing of the decision is critical in order to give ALC the time to have all of the drivers in place for the first day of school.