By Tyria McCray
The latest news from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) that it had to suspend service on 21 bus routes for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week due to drivers reporting COVID-19 symptoms came as a shock to many residents. The school district told affected families to provide transportation for their child or call the district’s transportation office to arrange for a bus to pick them up after 9 a.m.
This acute shortfall in bus personnel cut short the better news last week that the school district was addressing the chronic school bus driver shortage with a hike in pay. At the school board meeting Feb. 14, CHCSD Board of Education upped driver pay to $20 an hour, on top of increases they had made previously. The $20 milestone won’t take effect until this July, however.
Like other school districts nationwide, the shortage began even before the pandemic as drivers began to age out, turn to higher-paying transit work or turn to gigs that offered not only better pay, but more flexible schedules than the twice-daily split shift of school bus transportation that often prevent adding a second job. The COVID-19 pandemic quickly worsened the situation.
During the fall of 2021, several North Carolina school districts dealt with a shortage of school bus drivers, one of which was Chapel Hill. By June of 2022, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district began the recruitment process for new drivers, hoping to fill an additional 24 seats so buses are fully operational. The CHCCS Board of Education implemented incentives, first by offering $16.50 per hour with an additional $4,000 sign-on bonus. Moreover, to retain drivers, an additional $2,000 referral bonus incentive was given.
Fast forward to last week’s decision to boost school bus drivers in Chapel Hill-Carrboro to that $20 an hour level, and drivers here will be among the highest in the state. This decision to up the minimum pay was unanimously approved by the board of education members.
During the meeting, Superintendent Nyah Hamlett provided a list of issues the school board plans to solve, which included eliminating the impact of nationwide driver shortages, eliminating lost instructional time due to uncovered routes, and ameliorating the burden on staff, which includes covering drivers’ additional routes and educators staying after school beyond regular work hours.
“Ultimately, we do need to be positioned to provide safe, efficient and economical transportation for our students to access the education that they have a right to,” said Hamlett.
After Hamlett spoke, André Stewart, chief operations officer of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, gave an in-depth and concise presentation on how the driver shortage impacts instruction.
Specifically, he analyzed those impacts the driver shortage has caused for students since November 1, 2022. Chapel Hill and Carrboro schools extended grace to students who were tardy due to bus coverage or other transportation complications. Despite having tardy penalties waived, however, many students still lost out on instructional hours, which negatively impacts learning opportunities.
Examples cited included what happened for the period between last Nov. 1 and Feb. 3 this year: Twenty elementary students assigned to one bus missed 1,920 hours; 45 middle school students missed 3,030 hours, and 30 high school students missed 1,690 instructional hours, bringing the total to 6,640 instructional hours lost.
Stewart also added three recommendations that were a combination of approaches, addressing driver needs. The first list included increasing driver pay to $20 per hour, amending their current policy to allow 18-year-olds to become bus drivers, and implementing consolidated stops by incorporating neighborhood stops with a maximum distance of three-tenths of a mile for elementary students and half a mile for secondary students.
The second recommendation would be the implementation of bell schedule changes in sync with consolidated stops. To further elaborate, this recommendation would allow more efficient transportation runs.
The last recommendation entailed magnet school service changes by instituting a transfer system, which would help with logistical concerns. Board member Deon L. Temne shared his concern that this recommendation would bring along some confusion when it comes to transferring a student from one bus to another. He focused on the burdens that transfers might cause some students, parents and bus drivers.
Once all recommendations were given, some of the board of education members shared their sentiments.
“This is an amazing amount of information and work. I fully support recommendations number one and two. Your findings give us the best chance of getting this problem solved. It’s a serious problem and I know it’s dramatic but I think it’s time we make the bell schedule change, move forward, and see if we can get this problem put to rest,” said Board Vice Chair George Griffin.
Board member Deon Temne expressed his support for certain recommendations, focusing on relieving negative impacts to learning.
“For me, it’s the lost instructional hours. We are constantly speaking about closing gaps but if they are not in school, we aren’t closing the gaps that way,” Temne said. “It’s a tough decision but it’s one we have to make. I am definitely on board with recommendation number one. However, we should be looking at recommendation number two as well. Hopefully the pay increase will stop some of the bleeding now, but as we look forward and start implementing all of these things, I think that helps solve our problem. I am for it.”
Stewart also added that buses cover 55 routes with only 40 drivers and the district is short 15 bus routes every morning. He adamantly spoke on the need for increasing that driver number to the full 55 and the number of students arriving late to school because of the driver shortfall.
Reacting to Stewart’s reported numbers, Griffin said, “We are asking for 20 minutes to get 4,000 kids to school on time. That is a third of our student body. I can’t vote for anything less than doing everything possible to get that to change.”
Tyria McCray is a story-driven journalist whose work also appears in The Carolinian newspaper in Raleigh. With a bachelor’s in journalism & mass communication from North Carolina A&T State University, she has the distinction of having interviewed President Joe Biden when he was a candidate on the campaign trail and Vice President Kamala Harris.