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Bus delays mar first week of school

Virginia Breen’s mother has to arrive at her job by 5:40 a.m. and often doesn’t get home until after 7:30 that evening.

She’s a bus driver for Isle of Wight County Schools, and has been for 13 years. But this school year, she’s having to complete double routes to make up for a shortage of available drivers.

“My mom has doctor’s appointments; she can’t even take off,” Breen said. “There’s no bus drivers to cover her.”

According to Lee Livingston, the school system’s director of transportation, Isle of Wight was eight drivers short as of the first day of classes Sept. 7.

“We have to operate from the standpoint that we may not find eight drivers,” said Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton. “Chesapeake, everyone is fighting for the drivers.”

According to David Elliott, the school system’s communications coordinator, between 500 to 600 students are currently assigned to buses that complete double routes. Students assigned to the first run may have to be at their bus stops up to 40 minutes earlier than their normal time, and those assigned to the second run have, in some cases, been arriving at school up to an hour and a half late, he said.

“Currently there are only four buses affected by this, and plans are in place to reduce that to three by Monday and ideally zero soon after,” Elliott said.

Jessica Munford’s three children are among those who ride one of the affected buses.

Munford said she was told to expect bus No. 32 at 7:48 a.m. to take her two boys to Hardy Elementary and that the same bus would return at 8:10 a.m. to take her daughter to Westside Elementary. But when she took all three children to their bus stop around 7:20, she said they ended up waiting there until 8:30, at which point Munford gave up and drove all three children to school herself. She later learned the bus had arrived at 7:15 with instructions to take all three children at once to two different schools.

“These kids are not getting to school on time to eat breakfast,” Munford said. “Mine do, but there are kids out in our county … they depend on breakfast at school.”

According to Elliott, some students have to wait at their schools an extra hour and 15 minutes while their bus completes its first run and then returns to the school to take them home. Munford said her three children ended up not getting home until 6:15 p.m., resulting in her two boys missing football practice.

“That’s 11 hours away from the house,” she said.

Thornton said he hopes to eliminate the double routes soon.

“Our goal is to reroute all those buses, which may make some of our existing routes longer, but we want to eliminate the double runs so that students are our first priority, they get to school on time, they don’t miss class and they get to home at a time where they won’t miss football practice or cheerleading practice or dance,” Thornton said.

To recruit more drivers, the School Board voted to offer bus drivers a $1,000 stipend to drivers whose routes are extended, plus a $1,000 bonus to any driver that recruits a new driver, provided that new employee completes the required training and begins working.

But Breen argues that isn’t enough.

“They need to be paid more,” she said.

Her mother, she said, started at $11 an hour 13 years ago and now makes around $14 an hour. According to Elliott, the starting rate for all new bus drivers is $14.50 per hour, with the current maximum set at $29.05 per hour based on years of experience. Substitute driver pay, he said, is now also $14.50 per hour as of Sept. 9. Previously, substitute driver pay had been $13.50 per hour.

York County Public Schools, which is also reporting a bus driver shortage, offers a $15.40-per-hour starting rate for bus drivers by comparison, but has a lower maximum than Isle of Wight at $22.4 per hour.

“I’m not blaming the bus drivers whatsoever … I know the pandemic was hard on everybody and we’re not out of it yet, but something’s gotta give,” Munford said.