A month into the academic year, Hall County schools are grappling with an unprecedented shortage of bus drivers.
Students are late, drivers are doubling up on routes and principals are stepping out of the office and getting behind the wheel.
“The situation is as tough as it’s been in my career,” said Clay Hobbs, director of transportation. “It’s really just a day-to-day survival mode right now.”
The district is short approximately 30 drivers — more than one-tenth of the 250 needed to operate smoothly — and as many as one-third of the 15,000 bus-boarding students are affected by the shortage.
About a dozen drivers are currently sidelined with COVID-19, and the number of infections within the department is already on par with the peak from last year. “This is about what we saw during the peak,” Hobbs said. “What's troubling is, it’s so early in the school year for us to see the peak that I'm not convinced this is the peak.”
The district as a whole has nearly doubled its all-time record, with 385 confirmed cases as of Sept. 3.
The coronavirus pandemic is “one of the biggest factors” in the current driver shortage, Hobbs said, but the department has been scraping by with a skeleton staff for the better part of three years. The staff who remain are “working themselves to the bone,” he said.
“I have noticed signs of stress in their day-to-day operations, and it really bothers me to see that,” Hobbs said. “I care about each and every one of my people, bus drivers included, monitors included, and it bothers me a lot to see them suffer.”
Some parents are upset that fully one month into the school year, their children are still missing the morning bell and getting home half-an-hour late.
Drivers are responsible for routes across various grade levels, and even minor hiccups in timing and coordination can trigger a “domino effect” throughout the district, Hobbs said. And some problems go beyond tardiness. When a bus is late in the morning, a student may walk back home, and if parents are at work that student is stuck at the house without supervision.
Buses have been outfitted with GPS systems, but the information is not yet accurate in the myStop app that students and parents would use to track their bus. Hobbs expects the app to be operational come December.
“We do get angry parents,” said David Childers, transportation and safety coordinator, adding that his staff respond to some 20 emails and calls every day. “Sometimes they hang up the phone still as angry as they were when they called.” But after some explaining, he said, “the majority of people” are “sympathetic to our situation.”
For his part, Childers drives a route almost every morning, on top of his official duties, and regularly punches 12-hour shifts. Hobbs called him an “unsung hero of Hall County.”
In the battle for bus drivers, rank means little.
At least two principals and two assistant principals are driving about twice a week. Libbie Armstrong, assistant principal and athletic director at Chestatee Academy, is one of them.
Armstrong has driven many times for sports and activities, and she actually enjoys driving the buses and “getting to know the kids on a different level,” she said. “But it is not easy to go the whole day doing your job here at school and then get geared up to go drive for another hour after school. But I feel like everybody just pitches in and does what they can.”
When Childers began working for the district in 2007, they had some 50 substitute drivers on standby, he said. That pool has since dried up entirely, and the district now has zero in reserve.
Hobbs said superintendent Will Schofield “has been very supportive” and “continues to ask what he can do to help.”
The district has offered bonuses, increased driver wages, fully rounded out the benefits package and added 47 new buses to the county fleet, each costing roughly $100,000.
At the last board of education meeting, members unanimously extended an incentive program that pays new drivers $1,000 after three months. The program was set to expire at the end of August, but it will now run until year’s end. The department also extended a $500 referral bonus for the same term.
Drivers typically make close to $22 an hour and work about 20 hours a week. With 180 days in the school year, the starting salary is roughly $15,700. A driver who has been working for decades, though, can make significantly more, about $22,000 a year, and drivers with experience in other districts are paid accordingly. Drivers also get full benefits.
“Now is really a great time for folks to come in and fill out an application,” Hobbs said.
Despite these incentives, only two-thirds of applicants actually finish the application process, Hobbs said. And even when steadfast candidates are found, the training is arduous and time-consuming, typically lasting more than a month.
The picture is similar across the United States: nearly fourth-fifths of school transportation professionals say they are grappling with driver shortages, according to a March report by HopSkipDrive on the state of school transportation.
Short of paying drivers “some exorbitant” amount of money, Hobbs said he is at a loss about how to attract, train and retain new drivers. On the upside, he has received between 40 and 50 responses in the past week or so after a successful email campaign to parents.
A few days into the school year, the district apologized for bus delays on its Facebook page and offered some reassurance.
“As new drivers adjust to routes and new students learn procedures, delays are expected,” the district wrote. “We experience this every year during the first year of school. We fully anticipate improvement over the next week and we appreciate your support.”
Weeks later, shortages remain, staff are overwhelmed and thousands of students are caught in the middle.
“These are certainly challenging times, as COVID has impacted many facets of our daily lives, and schools are not immune to the ramifications,” said district spokesman Stan Lewis. “Our team at the transportation department has done an incredible job under some really challenging circumstances. We are grateful to them and to those who are pitching in to assist, and we appreciate the patience of our parents. We continue to offer incentives for individuals interested in driving for the district, and we welcome their applications.”