Parents in Fairfax County, Virginia, are being urged to be flexible and plan for delays due to a “severe” shortage of school bus drivers.
School starts on Monday, Aug. 23, and just weeks before, the school system was short 190 drivers.
By the Friday before the first day of school, Francine Furby, Director of Transportation Services for Fairfax County Public Schools, said she couldn’t say exactly how many more are needed because the recruitment process “is a fluid situation.”
The school system even asked parents to shuttle kids themselves, if possible, to alleviate some of the strain.
The shortage remains despite the offer of signing bonuses of $2,000 to all applicants who meet the criteria to become a driver. And there’s even a $1,000 bonus that will go to Fairfax County schools or county government employee that recruits a driver.
On a typical day, there are 1,200 FCPS school buses on the road each day. And they cover “at least 17 million miles a year,” Furby said.
In order to get the 140,000 kids who depend on buses to school, Furby said there will be a number of “double back” routes. That means drivers will complete one bus run, then “double back” to tackle another. “So we’re asking parents to be patient, and to expect some delays.”
Furby said there are ways for parents get real-time information on the arrival of their child’s bus.
“We do have some systems in place that will allow parents to check on their student transportation for the most recent updates, such as our parent view account,” Furby said. “We’re also asking parents to access our Here Comes the Bus app. It’s an app that’s available, and will show parents exactly where their bus is located, and how much time before that bus will arrive to the designated stop.”
While the shortage is especially acute this year, Furby said Fairfax County schools have faced driver shortages for “some time.” She explains that even before the coronavirus pandemic, the school system was often looking to fill between 80 and 90 bus driver positions.
Fairfax County schools are not alone in the search for school bus drivers. Asked about the competition for drivers in the D.C. area, Furby said, “You know, we are in this together. We know that each district is suffering with a driver shortage. It’s a nationwide crisis that we’re in right now.”
Curt Macysyn, Executive Director of the National School Transportation Association, said Furby is right: The driver shortage is widespread.
Macysyn said one issue that may be fueling the shortage is the fact that many drivers are older. In many cases, they became drivers after retiring from other jobs. “Many of the bus drivers fall into the category of high risk for severe illness related to COVID.”
He said after being furloughed due to school closures, many may be hesitant to return.
Another factor in the driver shortage, according to Macysyn, is the fact that so many school districts were closed for most of the 2020-2021 school year.
“So we weren’t filling that funnel with new drivers as we normally would,” he said.
Along with offering signing bonuses and boosting wages, Macysyn said school districts need to emphasize the positives of the job: Drivers can maintain part-time positions; they can have summers off; or in some cases, they can focus on driving sports teams.
The job is also challenging: Drivers have to be alert to traffic and weather conditions, and are responsible for getting the students on their bus back-and-forth to school safely.
“But we haven’t seen any large-scale indicators that say people are leaving because of the inability to manage the students,” Macysyn said.
As Fairfax County asks parents to be patient with any delays in getting kids to school, Macysyn also asks for consideration during the first, frenetic weeks of school. “You know when that bus driver does come around, be kind to them.”