This week is an important one for administrators tasked with overseeing the school system’s Transportation Department. It’s the week that they find out just how many drivers will return to their post for another school year.
Last year at this time, Loudoun was short 89 bus drivers. That had drivers making double runs, meaning they would pick up and drop off one bus-load of students only to turn around and pick up and drop off a second bus-load of students. That meant some students were arriving to school late and, in some cases, were on the bus for 90 minutes one way. To address the severe shortage, school leaders have ramped up recruitment efforts, increased pay and benefits, redrew routes, and even made changes to bell schedules.
Among the changes coming with the new school year is a new start time for every high school and Blue Ridge, Harmony, J. L. Simpson, and Smart’s Mill middle schools. That move will give the staff more room to adjust routes.
“We’ve made strategic changes,” Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Kevin Lewis said. “We’ve used a scalpel, not a hatchet, in making these adjustments.”
The update was given to members of the Student Support and Services Committee last week, ahead of the first day of school Aug. 24.
The county will have 535 routes this year—389 regular routes and 146 specialized routes. That requires 598 drivers, considering an average of 63 are absent on any given day. If every person who drove bus last year returns for this school year, the Transportation Department would still be four drivers short, according to Transportation Director Michael Brown.
“The recruitment is going well. I feel good about where we are today, but in a week, we will have a better view of who actually came back,” he said.
If attrition rate from previous years is any indication, the school system will be 11 drivers short on the first day of school, he added.
The Transportation Department is also looking for School Board approval to apply for funding through Virginia Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program for two projects that would encourage more students to walk to school.
The first is to build a pedestrian bridge over the Belmont Ridge Road to Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, for an estimated cost between $950,000 and $1.2 million. Students often jaywalk to get to the high school instead of crossing at the Ryan Road intersection. VDOT will likely not approve an at-grade walk lane there because it is a four-lane road, Lewis said, but they may OK a pedestrian bridge. “We think it’s a good idea to solve that problem.”
That project would expand Briar Woods’ walk zone, meaning fewer students would receive bus service because they could more easily access the school by foot.
The second project would provide a trail or sidewalk along the west side of Tripleseven Road to Countryside Elementary School, for a cost of between $300,000 and $450,000. The trail or sidewalk would connect to the network of sidewalks between Cromwell Road and the trail to the northwest of Heather Glen Road. If that project is approved, it would mean at least 56 students who receive bus service now could walk to school.
The application to request money from the Safe Routes to School program must get the green light from School Board and Board of Supervisors. A resolution will go to both the boards for approval within the next two months.
The projects are the latest in a division-wide effort to encourage more students to walk or ride bike to school. School leaders have worked to find funding to improve crosswalks and provide more bike lanes to gradually increase walk zones, to cut down on transportation costs and reduce the number of parents driving their kids to school. Most elementary students living within 1 mile of their school do not get bus service, and most middle and high school students living within 1.25 miles of their schools do not receive bus service.
Lewis and Brown thanked the School Board for backing their efforts to increase the number of students who walk and to recruit and retain bus drivers. “We’re on our way to solving this problem,” Brown said.
They also introduced the new coordinator of outreach and communication for the Transportation Department, Ed Breslauer.
“Oh, we need you,” School Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian) told Breslauer. Rose, who chairs the Student Support and Services Committee, said that she received a lot of calls from upset families at the start of last school year. They called about longer-than-ever rides and even students forgotten at bus stops. “I’d like to have less feedback in the first couple weeks of school on this issue.”
The school system is still in need of bus drivers. Pay starts at $19.32 per hour. Learn more at lcps.org/page/2092.