At the start of the pandemic, over a dozen Hall County Schools bus drivers quit because they felt unsafe working in a public setting, Director of Transportation Clay Hobbs said.
As a result, there are more bus routes than bus drivers available in the Hall district. Hobbs said most bus drivers left because a family member or themselves had an underlying health condition. School district spokesman Stan Lewis said drivers who have contracted COVID-19 and been placed in isolation have added to the shortage.
The district has struggled to hire new bus drivers, as the average bus driver applicant is a retiree and hesitant to work during the pandemic, Hobbs said.
However the situation varies within the Gainesville City School System, said Carisa Jones-Mayweather, director of transportation for the school system. She said only two bus drivers have quit and the system recently hired two more.
Jones-Mayweather echoed Hobbs in that the majority of their bus drivers are retirees. The system uses coaches to drive to field trips but their usual drivers and office staff have been able to cover their routes, Jones-Mayweather said. Before and during the pandemic, Gainesville schools have combatted their slow hiring process with support from their office staff, Jones-Mayweather said.
“We have been able to manage our workload because of our office staff capabilities and a 95% attendance rate,” Jones-Mayweather said. “When the pandemic hit back in March of 2020, we had no applicants applying for bus driving positions. … Recently, we have had several applicants apply for driving positions.”
Gainesville City Schools employ 46 bus drivers, with 35 conventional routes and 10 special education daily routes, Jones-Mayweather said. Hall County employs 253 full-time drivers — 13 are full-time substitute drivers and two are occasional drivers, Lewis said. When fully staffed, the district has 301 drivers, which includes 251 route drivers, 25 full-time substitutes and 25 part-time substitutes, Lewis said.
The district has regular bus routes, mid-day bus routes, shuttle runs and trips every day. It also has World Language Academy routes and accommodates homeless students in the Mckinny-Vento program, whose aim is to provide homeless students access to public education. The district's Special Education routes also transport pre-K students that only attend half the day of school, Lewis said.
In order to combat the shortage of drivers, Hobbs said local teachers who hold a commercial driver’s license and are licensed bus drivers have stepped up. Ethan Banks, West Hall Middle School principal and Tracie Brack, principal at Friendship Elementary have worked as bus drivers several times, Hobbs said. Jennifer Kogod, principal at Chestatee Academy, has also worked as a bus driver.
“Our faculty and staff have filled in and graciously helped us multiple times,” Hobbs said. “They understand the importance of transportation and we couldn’t have completed the bus routes at times without their help.”
Aside from faculty assistance, Hobbs said the district has increased a practice called “double routes.” When ridership is low enough, Hobbs said if two routes are close in distance, one bus will run both routes. The downside to this practice is it can result in dropoff delays, Hobbs said. However double routes have been essential during the driver shortages. Another strategy is route splitting, Lewis said this when a route is split in half and two different drivers transport half of the missing route.
In 2019, the Gainesville City school system introduced a bus driver hiring incentive program. New bus drivers were eligible to receive a $1,000 incentive after working a minimum of 115 days. Current bus drivers who referred someone to apply received $500 per referral, up to a maximum of 5 referrals.
The referral fees were paid in May and the new hire must have worked at least 115 days in order to receive the incentive. The $500 payment could be renewed for up to three years, with board approval and if the new hire remains an employee. The system also obtained a bus driver longevity program. If a driver works for five years they may receive $500 for the next nine following years. If a driver works for 10 years, they may receive $1,000 for up to 19 years and the incentive amount continues to increase by another $1,000 per every 10 years a driver works.
“Bus drivers have one of the most difficult jobs in a school system. They are the first to greet our students and the last. We have the best team around and their commitment to our families, especially during COVID, has been phenomenal,” Gainesville City School System Superintendent Jeremy Williams said.
Another pandemic-related issue for Hall County is the process and time needed when an individual on a bus tests positive for COVID-19, Lewis said. He said the district personnel must contact trace and its team members must spend hours reviewing bus video footage to determine who’s been in direct contact with the individual.
Since the return of in-person classes, buses are sanitized twice a day, sanitizer containers have been installed and bus drivers and riders must wear masks, Lewis said. The district is working on a bus sanitization project designed to keep surfaces on buses germ and virus free for extended periods of time, Lewis said. He said the process involves cleaning, disinfecting and coating with a protectant. More details on the project will be released in the coming weeks, Lewis said.
For the Gainesville City school system, Jones-Mayweather said they’ve implemented assigned seats for students on the bus to ensure social distancing. There is also a morning and evening cleaning crew that sanitizes the buses, Jones-Mayweather said.
Despite recent transportation challenges, Hobbs said he’s grateful for the bus drivers and staff who assist in providing safe and reliable transportation for students.
“I am so proud of the people that work in this department. Those bus drivers that have been with us all the way through this pandemic,” Hobbs said. “Many of them have health issues and they chose to continue to serve the community and put their health at risk.”