The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district is facing a shortage of bus drivers, resulting in a transportation crisis that affects students on a daily basis.
André Stewart, the district’s chief operations officer, said that every day, there are 15 school bus routes that are not covered due to the lack of drivers. The district’s transportation department currently requires bus drivers who complete their first route to then take an additional route.
“Our transportation department has done an outstanding job of masking the problem for the first part of the year,” Stewart said. “It was not until November that we had our first uncovered route.”
Andy Jenks, CHCCS' chief communications officer, said before the COVID-19 pandemic, the district had more than 70 bus drivers. Now, there are 37 full-time bus drivers and seven office members who are licensed to drive buses if necessary.
The significant decrease in bus drivers is not an isolated issue. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, former transportation employees have found higher-paying, less stressful jobs, Stewart said.
“There have been a number of attempts to incentivize drivers to come work for school districts such as increased pay, signing bonuses, attendance bonuses, referral bonuses,” Jenks said. “Yet despite all of the financial enhancements and ongoing incentives, school districts continue to have a really difficult time recruiting and retaining bus drivers.”
The CHCCS Transportation Department formed a transportation optimization committee to examine the effects of the uncovered routes and explore potential solutions, Stewart said.
The committee calculated that elementary, middle and high school students missed 3,950 potential instructional hours within a 39-day period as a result of tardiness caused by transportation issues.
“Because of the bus shortage and unreliability, it’s been a lot less students riding the bus,” Aarya Potti, a senior at Chapel Hill High School, said.
In order to combat the disruptions to learning, the committee has proposed three potential strategies to lessen the impact of the uncovered routes. CHCSS is also surveying families in the district to see what they prefer.
One strategy is adopting a tiered bell schedule for elementary schools, meaning seven of the district’s elementary schools would begin classes at 7:30 a.m. and four would start at 7:50 a.m.
“If buses do one set of routes for the early tier and then a second set of routes for the later tier — keeping middle and high school relatively the same — that's one way to cover the same number of routes with fewer drivers,” Jenks said.
Another proposed solution is changing transportation criteria for magnet school students, who attend schools outside of their zone for special programs, such as dual language learning.
Changes to magnet students’ bus routes could include implementing transfer buses to pick up students, designating a shuttle stop for these students or eliminating transportation accommodations for magnet program students entirely.
“Another option is the consolidation of bus stops so that our current fleet of drivers can more efficiently cover their routes from one day to the next, which would speed up the transportation process and allow the same number of drivers to cover more routes in a given day,” Jenks said.
No final decisions have been made yet and the district hopes to have new strategies implemented for the 2023 to 2024 school year, Jenks said.
Stewart said the community has been very understanding of the transportation crisis.
“People are signing to do extra-duty contracts from schools to help out their schools,” he said. “That's one of the things that makes Chapel Hill a wonderful community to work and to learn is that people will chip in and help out and not just talk about it. It's awesome to see.”
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