Relief is on the way for Loudoun’s school bus driver shortage as dozens of new hires are set to complete their training, but there is still a need for drivers to cover the 519 daily routes in the county.
The driver shortage was a challenge even before the arrival of COVID-19, but, during the pandemic the district lost a significant number of drivers despite keeping them on payroll.
“Nationally everyone is recognizing that there is a bus driver shortage, a truck driver shortage, a driver of any kind shortage across the country,” Chief Operations Officer Kevin Lewis told the School Board during its Oct. 12 meeting. “I’m pleased by the School Board for working to make a more attractive overall compensation package from benefits to salaries and those types of things.”
Lewis said that the recruiting process is a never-ending one. For example, during the 2017-2018 school year, there were 82 new hires, while the department lost 44 drivers. The next year was similar, with 81 new hires and 64 drivers who left for retirement or other jobs.
Lewis estimates that the district is short 58 drivers and 28 attendants.
New recruitment tactics began over the summer are working, Chief Human Resources Officer Lisa Boland said.
The district has held hiring events, increased driver pay to $22.16 an hour, increased the sign-on bonus to $2,500 and the referral bonus to $1,000, and has increased the number of guaranteed daily work hours from five to six.
Since implementing those measures, the number of trainees has doubled, Boland said. There are 49 people beginning training and 19 people who are about to begin their behind-the-wheel training.
But getting new hires signed on is only half the battle. Bus drivers go through a training program and must obtain a permit from the DMV. Then, they must complete a two-week training process and pass the certified drivers license test. Only 67% of candidates pass the training.
Then, they undergo 25 hours of behind-the-wheel training, and 10 hours of driving actual routes with students, accompanied with another driver for supervision.
The entire process takes about three months, Boland said. The length of the process and delays at the DMV for appointments to get permits means that having a pool of qualified candidates is far from an immediate fix.
Lewis stressed that Loudoun is competing with other localities for drivers. A recent study from HopSkipDrive found that 81% of school divisions nationwide are fighting driver shortages.
The nature of the job, which requires employees to work for a few hours in the morning, take a break, and return for a few hours in the afternoon, makes it an unconventional work schedule.
The operations department is looking to possible scheduling changes to reduce the number of drivers needed, and to maximize the hours available to drivers. One suggestion is staggering bell times for elementary schools, so drivers can take more routes and get more hours on the clock.
Beth Barts (Leesburg) pointed out that changing school start times might have an adverse impact on families.
“We have that in our district and it is frustrating for some parents. Parents do plan their work schedule around- especially at the elementary level. Those kids can’t be home alone,” Barts said.
Loudoun Nowreported in September that some students in the district waited for up to an hour for their ride to school at one point. Parents have reported that bus routes have been canceled, or that they have been asked to pick up and drop off their students so that buses can consolidate routes. On days when there is an unusually high amount of driver absences, staff members and supervisors have to take routes.