Virginia bus driver shortages continue, but determining how bad they are is complicated
Data shows small reduction in bus driver shortage amid recruitment efforts
Shannon Grimsley, superintendent of Rappahannock County Public Schools, and her trainer, bus driver Jerry Goebel, look underneath the hood of a school bus in Washington, Virginia. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)
Virginia’s public schools continue to face challenges transporting students to school amid ongoing bus driver shortages spurred by factors such as low pay and strict safety and retirement regulations.
At the same time, divisions have also found creative ways to stay ahead of the driver shortage. Shannon Grimsley, superintendent of Rappahannock County Public Schools, said she is becoming a part-time bus driver in hopes of alleviating transportation barriers for students.
“The best way for me to get in there to see what’s going on is to understand the whole process myself,” said Grimsley.
Last school year, the Virginia Department of Education began collecting bus driver vacancy data from school divisions. The most recent numbers collected by the department for the 2022-23 year appear to show some improvements, with vacant roles falling from almost 16% of full-time driving jobs across the state to a little over 12%. Central Virginia, which includes the city of Richmond and Chesterfield, Hanover, Henrico and Goochland counties, has seen the largest uptick in bus drivers over the past year, decreasing its vacancy rate by 10.8 percentage points.
However, those data also reveal the situation is far more complicated, making it difficult to determine whether shortages are actually improving.
For example, many school divisions significantly changed the number of full- and part-time drivers they require, citing declining enrollment and logistical changes like route consolidation. Divisions were also required to provide the number of car and van drivers for the first time this year.
The Tidewater and Eastern Shore region offers a good illustration. In 2021-22, divisions in the region reported needing 2,240 full-time bus drivers. In 2022-23, however, that number decreased to 2,091. Similarly, in Northern Virginia, the required number of full-time drivers declined from 3,742 to 3,327 over the past year.
Virginia is not alone in facing driver shortages. Some 88% of school officials who responded to a survey by Hop Skip Drive, an organization focused on transportation access for children, said shortages had constrained their school transportation operations in 2021-22.
According to the group’s data, the top reasons for the driver shortage are low pay and drivers retiring, contracting COVID-19 or leaving for jobs in the private sector.
In Virginia, data collected by the Virginia Education Association indicates school divisions with high rates of students in poverty and students of color have high bus driver vacancy rates. Vacancy rates were also found to be nearly three times as high at schools with the highest share of Black students, averaging 18% compared to just 6% at schools with the lowest shares of Black students.
“Our state funding formula doesn’t take student needs into account, which means that divisions with the most need often don’t have the capacity to offer competitive pay needed to attract and retain workers,” said Chad Stewart, a policy analyst for the Virginia Education Association.
Grimsley, who has been in contact with her counterparts in Northern Virginia on the issue, said her experience also indicates there are many reasons for the shortage. She believes her decision to join the ranks of bus drivers has helped: Recently, the division attracted three applicants.
“I think there’s a whole lot of reasons why people don’t at least step through the door, but that’s what we’re trying to find out, and that’s why I’m going through it myself to see if there’s any way I can help the training process, and make it less intimidating for people who want to join,” she said.
Issues for applicants
Some drivers and education experts have said disruptive student behavior could discourage people from applying to be school bus drivers.
There’s some evidence behavior problems may be worsening in Virginia. A November report from Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which conducts analysis and provides oversight of state agencies on behalf of the General Assembly, found school staff reported more students exhibited disruptive behavior when they returned to in-person learning in 2021-22 compared to the years prior to the pandemic.
“Behavior on the school bus has gotten totally out of hand,” said Brenda Riddell, a bus driver, during a Feb. 23 Henrico County School Board meeting.
“Riding the bus is a privilege. It’s not a right,” she continued. “Please listen to bus drivers. We’re your eyes and your ears. If it’s going to happen on the bus, sooner or later, it’s going to happen in the school.”
A bill that would have required bus drivers to complete one mental health training program to help support students with special needs failed in a 4-4 vote during the last session.
Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, said she introduced the bill to protect students with special needs and give bus drivers the training they need to do their jobs.
She said parents shouldn’t be worried about their children being mistreated because of their mental health condition and drivers should be set up to succeed.
“Parents shouldn’t be worried about their children being mistreated because of their mental health condition,” Guzman said in a statement. “We also want our bus drivers to be set up to succeed.”
Over the past 20 years, Virginia’s criteria for school bus drivers, which are in addition to the national requirement that drivers hold a commercial driver’s license, have also become stricter, requiring more hours on a school bus and greater familiarity with the parts of the bus.
Jerry Goebel, a school bus driver for Rappahannock County Schools, said he remembered when the test to become a driver covered a single piece of paper, front and back. Now that test has expanded to eight or nine pages, Goebel said, testing applicants on more technical parts of the school bus, such as how far the push rod can extend and the operation of air brakes compared to hydraulic brakes.
“You just never had to know all of that detail,” Goebel said.
Under state law, bus driver applicants must obtain a commercial driver’s license with various classifications and endorsements, which permit licensed drivers to operate certain vehicles like school buses or those carrying hazardous materials. If drivers don’t have all the endorsements, they can’t drive.
Then in 2018, the law was updated, requiring applicants in the process of getting their commercial driver’s license to undergo 24 hours of classroom training and six hours of behind-the-wheel training on a school bus with no students. Applicants who begin training with a CDL only need four hours of classroom instruction and three hours behind the wheel. The Virginia Department of Education also provides training and development for bus operators.
Changes in the past year
One of the factors complicating divisions’ efforts to fill driver positions is the significant drop in students Virginia has seen over the past five years.
In 2019-20, Virginia recorded 1.298 million students enrolled in public schools. Enrollment was down to 1.261 million in 2022-23 — a difference of almost 30,000 students. Some of those decreases are due to aging populations and declining youth in areas like Charlotte County, where the fastest growth has occurred among residents aged 65 and older.
While enrollment picked up in 2021-22 as the pandemic eased, many families still decided not to send their children back to school or found other ways of getting there besides the bus, such as walking with other students in areas like Arlington and Charlottesville. Chronic absenteeism is also still unusually high across divisions.
Due to strict laws governing retirement, former bus operators who want to help fill shortages are also finding it more challenging to rejoin the roster of drivers.
Under state law, any retired employee must wait 12 consecutive months after retirement before being rehired by the district to continue receiving a retirement allowance.
Legislation that passed this February reduced the waiting period from 12 months to six. The Virginia Retirement System is tasked with providing a report to the House and Senate finance committee chairs by Nov. 1 to determine whether retired school employees could return to work earlier than six months after retirement.
New incentives for drivers
With shortages remaining, school divisions are experimenting with new ways to attract drivers.
William Pettus, an elementary school principal in Charlotte County, said school divisions like Charlotte are offering driving training to instructional aides to supplement their income. The school division also hired instructional aides with bus-driving experience as well.
Across the commonwealth, some divisions are offering signing bonuses to new school bus drivers who meet eligibility requirements. Others have relaxed the application process and created incentives such as referral bonuses.
Last January, the federal government gave Virginia and other states the option of temporarily waiving the portion of the commercial driver’s license skills test that requires applicants to identify “under the hood” engine components.
Pettus, who has split his time as an educator and bus driver for over 20 years, said drivers should be commended for their work.
“Student safety is paramount, and that’s always in drivers’ minds as they’re driving, but it’s not easy transporting kids every day,” Pettus said. “It takes a lot to be a driver and to focus on the road and to keep kids safe.”
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