CHCCS School Buses Better Than Last Year

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By Gregory DL Morris

Getting students to and from school for the first two weeks of the year has gone well for Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools, especially in contrast to the struggles last year amid a nationwide shortage of bus drivers. There was a snag on Friday, September 8, and Monday, September 11, because half a dozen drivers were unavailable, but the early results are cautiously optimistic.

CHCCS has about 12,000 students at 20 schools and 55% of them ride a school bus at some point during any given day. There are 55 routes in the morning and afternoon. The school system started the year with 56 drivers for the morning and 49 for the afternoon, according to Andy Jenks, chief communications officer for CHCCS.

“The margin is thin, but we do have enough full-time drivers to cover every route,” said Jenks. “Our recruitment efforts were effective, including the base pay increase to $20/hr approved last year. We also have a little flexibility with a few substitute drivers who do not work full-time as well as some office staff who are licensed and trained so they can drive if necessary.”

That margin was exceeded on September 8 and 11, when “five or six drivers were unexpectedly unavailable,” said Jenks. An email message alerting parents was sent on the morning of the 11th saying, “Due to sickness and high absenteeism, we do not have drivers to cover these routes this morning.”

Full-time drivers start the day with elementary school routes. They then collect and deliver middle school students and, finally, high school. The process is repeated in the afternoon.

If there is a shortage of drivers in excess of what substitutes can handle, some routes are delayed until a driver can complete others. “We never leave students high and dry,” said Jenks. “We send buses back. We also try to notify parents, and encourage them to consider other options if they can.”

Another important measure taken this year was to consolidate stops. Elementary school students may have to walk a third of a mile to a stop, middle school and high school students half a mile. That slight increase in distance significantly increases the efficiency of bus routes.

Jenks noted that every year the route system has to be adjusted as students advance through the grades and also move into and out of the district. “The adjustment goes on all year,” he added. “Not everyone moves into town conveniently four weeks before the start of school. Families move in, out, and around throughout the school year. That is usually not a major change across the district, but it could be a major change on a given route at the time.”

On aggregate, Jenks said, “this year is a distinct improvement over last year, when we had multiple routes uncovered.”

Through the first few weeks of school, drivers, students, and parents take time to settle into the routine, Jenks noted. Also, traffic or weather conditions can delay routes by as much as 10 or 15 minutes on any given day. “If there seems to be a persistent concern, we encourage parents to contact the transportation managers,” said Jenks. CHCCS transportation page is located here.

Gregory DL Morris is an independent journalist based in Chapel Hill with more than 30 years’ experience covering business, environment, energy and infrastructure. He has reported from all 50 states, eight Canadian provinces, and 17 countries on five continents.

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