While bus driver shortages, nationally and in Albemarle County, continue to disrupt arrival and departure schedules for students, the school division’s Transportation Services Department is making some improvements to the operations of school buses next year that will support the on-time arrival of students. These moderations will make bus routes more efficient; prioritize services to those who need it; and provide more predictability for families and staff.
Beginning with the new school year on Wednesday, August 23, the department will no longer utilize double-backs to complete bus routes. A double-back occurs when a bus route is open, meaning that there is not a driver permanently assigned to operate the bus. For all of this school year, open routes have required another bus driver to first complete their route and then return to the road to cover the open route. While this allows the department to ensure that all student passengers have service, it also results in schedule delays for some students. Often, delays can reach one hour or more.
In its most current report to the Albemarle County School Board, Transportation said that 83% of all students who ride a school bus arrive at school on schedule, meaning that nearly 1,000 students experience at least minimal delays. A little more than 100 of these student passengers arrive at school more than 15 minutes after their scheduled time.
“We all realize the inconveniences that our driver shortage has had on families and their own schedules and the impact this has had on schools, which have gone to great lengths to accommodate students who arrive after the start of the school day,” said Charmane White, Director of Transportation Services. “Unfortunately, we have not seen the increase we hoped for in the number of applications to be a school bus driver, despite such enhancements as raising our bus driver hourly wages to the highest in the region,” White added.
While the school division is continuing to focus on its recruitment of drivers, White acknowledged that vacancies are likely to continue through next year. That led the department to take several actions that are designed to reduce and eliminate bus route schedule delays in the future.
The most influential change is happening right now. The school division has sent out notices to all families with students in division schools, asking them to complete a short form to indicate whether their child will need bus transportation next year. All responses are due as soon as possible, but no later than June 30.
The significance of this information is underscored by requests from parents last year that indicated more than 9,500 students would need bus service. The actual number of student passengers this year has been 40% less than requested, or fewer than 6,000. This is consistent with the situation that has existed most years, dating back prior to the pandemic.
As White points out, during the summer, bus routes are designed and buses and bus drivers are assigned based upon parental requests for service. When those numbers are inflated, it results in bus stops and routes that are not needed. When there is a driver shortage, the impact of these “phantom” stops is magnified, as has happened throughout this year.
All parents are being asked to complete the one-question form by June 30, even if their child will not need bus transportation. These responses will allow the department to design the most efficient bus routes, saving travel time. If a parent requests transportation for their child after June 30, their child will be placed on a waitlist for service. This will not affect families who register their child for school after June 30 or students who receive transportation service by law. Parents should log in to their PowerSchool Parent Portal to complete the survey.
To help the school division improve bus service next year for families with no other transportation option, families who can transport their children to and from school are encouraged to do so.
White said the department also is consolidating the number of bus stops on private roads beginning in August, as using more centralized locations will save approximately 200 miles and about 11 hours of daily drive time. In a presentation to the school board on May 11, White outlined several other measures that will be in effect this August to improve on-time service, including:
- An expansion of current walk zones to one mile for elementary school students and 1.5 miles for middle and high school students. (Some exceptions will be made in areas where walking to school within these distances would present a safety concern.)
- Schedule adjustments that would result in some students arriving at school 15 minutes earlier than usual, allowing drivers to then pick up additional passengers and deliver them to school on time.
- The elimination of service on routes that do not have an assigned driver. Families who would be affected by this change will be notified by July 31. As drivers are assigned to these open routes, bus transportation will become available.
Students who by law are required to receive bus service, such as special education and homeless students, are not affected by any of these changes.
“These improvements to our current operations will provide much more stability, both for our families and our staff,” White said. “They also will introduce additional efficiencies to our route system and our use of buses, which will ensure that the day-to-day disruptions we have experienced this year are eliminated,” she said.
The ultimate goal is to reach full staffing, and White said the recruitment of drivers continues to be a priority. Those who have an interest in learning more about joining the school division as a part-time driver, at hourly salaries ranging up to $34.64, can apply here. Full-time drivers, who can earn as much as $36.46 per hour, can apply at this link. These salaries will increase by an additional 5% on July 1.
White’s May 11 presentation to the school board contains more information on the school bus changes that will take effect for the 2023-24 school year, including a list of specific schools affected by each of the changes.
CONTACT: Phil Giaramita, Public Affairs and Strategic Communications Officer