Many school divisions throughout the region are struggling to get students to and from school each and every day. Franklin County Public Schools is no exception.
Currently, the division doesn’t have anyone assigned to eight routes throughout the county. With those eight routes and the normal call outs from existing bus drivers for various reasons from, the division is normally down 15 routes on any given day. Although the division has two subcontract drivers who are on-call every day to fill routes, they simply aren’t enough.
In order to make sure all 542 elementary, secondary and special needs routes are covered, it’s all hands on deck. Jason Guilliams, director of operations, explained that the majority of the operations staff, including himself, four office personnel and six bus garage mechanics, have been driving routes at the beginning and end of each school day since school started again in August. Even three teachers and a school secretary are pitching in to get the job done.
While all of the division’s mechanics can cover routes, Guilliams doesn’t like to have all six of them driving routes at the same time in the event that a bus breaks down.
Lately, the doubling up of routes has become a regular occurrence. When this occurs, drivers run second routes after completing their primary routes. Other times, additional students are assigned to buses that they don’t normally ride, which ultimately leads to longer routes.
“A lot of mornings our drivers are very good about picking up the slack if they know there is a section of road that isn’t being covered that they are near. They may swing in and pick up additional students if they have space,” Guilliams said.
Despite the daily struggle Guilliams and his staff deals with, he said there have only been three or four instances when they couldn’t cover a route. All of the instances of unfilled routes have occurred in the afternoon. When a route isn’t covered, parents are notified that they need to provide transportation to and from school for their children. In the event that a parent isn’t able to perform the pick up, a driver will circle back around to the school to pick up the child after their primary route is complete.
Cherie Whitlow, supervisor of transportation, explained that they try to ensure that all middle and high school routes are covered because students at those schools oftentimes have to travel further distances than students at elementary schools. So far, she said, guardians have been able to pick up their children 98% of the time when they are notified that a route will not be run.
Guilliams said that he understands that when a bus is late, it “puts everybody’s day in a tailspin.” If a route will run but will just be late, a call or text is sent to guardians so that they are aware of the situation.
While Guilliams believes many factors are to blame for the division’s bus driver shortage, he said safety concerns around COVID-19, compensation, student behavior while on buses and work schedule are some of the most prevalent reasons he’s heard. Specifically regarding work schedule, he noted that many people don’t want to take a job that essentially takes up their whole day despite only being on the job for four hours. “You have four hours that you’re driving, but you’re really committed for the whole day,” he said. Whitlow added that drivers are now having to spend extra time dealing with students who don’t want to abide by the division’s mask policy while on a bus.
Occasionally, a driver is placed in quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure, which creates additional logistical problems.
In an attempt to recruit new drivers, the division places recruitment videos on social media and places old buses with banners advertising open positions throughout the county. Bus driver pay ranges from $84 a day at the high end to $61 a day at the low end.
Both Guilliams and Whitlow urge families to be patient as they work to resolve the division’s transportation issues.
“We work literally 24/7 on trying to figure out how to get routes covered each day,” Whitlow said. “As soon as we come in from our morning routes, we try to figure out what we’re going to do in the afternoon. We all then go out and do our afternoon routes. We get back to the office, then go home. At 6 o’clock we start calling each other to try to figure out how to cover the next morning’s routes. Then it starts again the next morning at 5 o’clock because we have to look at call ins that came in through the night. We are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week not to inconvenience anybody.”