WASHINGTON, D. C. (Monday, August 23, 2021) ––As the new school year dawns, school districts across the Washington metro area are grappling with a school bus driver shortage. It is stressing out students and their parents, who are forming carpools to get their children to school on time. It is raising alarms about overcrowded school buses jammed with pupils, students stranded at school bus stops for hours, bus transportation delays, bus delivery times to schools or bus stops, and safety at bus stops. To wit, a 15-year-old student in Stafford County was struck by a car while trying to get to school “when the school bus reportedly failed to pick her up.” The scarcity of school bus drivers is nationwide in scope. The pandemic exacerbated it.
It is making the classifieds and the headlines. The uptick in COVID-19 Delta variant cases is casting a pall on the beginning of the new 2021-2022 academic year and school bus transportation contingencies. Even before the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, nearly 25 percent of school bus drivers admitted “to leaving their current job for a higher paying job,” explains American Bus Sales. “Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, shortages have been even more of an issue than ever before.” Back-to-school transportation affects not only school districts, students, and parents, but also other motorists on the roads, warns AAA.
Now hiring. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) announced: “FCPS, along with surrounding school divisions, is experiencing severe bus driver shortages due to a national and regional driver shortage.” What is more, “The FCPS bus fleet is one of the largest bus fleets in the United States, transporting more than 141,000 students on over 1,600 buses each day.” As a result of the school bus driver shortage, Fairfax County Public Schools is warning parents “there may be delays impacting bus routes across FCPS starting Monday.”
Reportedly, “Montgomery County Public Schools need to fill more than 100 school bus driver vacancies, or thousands of students won’t have a ride to school.” For the safety of students, and traffic safety’s sake, successful applicants must have a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) with both passenger and school bus endorsements. Montgomery County Public Schools highlights the fact that “MCPS buses travel more than 112,000 miles per day (that’s four and a half times around the equator)!”
“Prior to the onset of the pandemic, an estimated 21 percent of the total morning traffic was generated by parents driving their kids to school. With schools back in session, with in-person classes, in yet another school year like no other, that number will greatly increase in the wake of the dearth of school bus drivers nationally and regionally,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “Consider this, ‘school buses save American families about 62 billion miles of driving each year,’ estimates the American School Bus Council. If school buses weren’t rolling, it would be equivalent to adding another ‘17 million cars’ to rush hour traffic during the morning and afternoon commutes.”
The lack of enough school bus drivers has triggered what some around the country are calling a “transportation logistics nightmare.” Fairfax County Public Schools recently tweeted: “If you can walk with or drive your child (and perhaps a neighbor’s), please do.” The school bus driver shortage will put extra traffic on the road and around elementary and middle schools, especially during drop-off and pick-up times. Whether in a school zone or residential neighborhood, drivers should keep their speed low and be prepared to stop quickly for increased vehicle or pedestrian traffic.
All of this “school traffic congestion,” plus “changes in school transportation modes” will likely “impact students, parent drivers and other commuters, as well as school staff, and residents living in and around schools.” The school bus driver shortage couldn’t come at a worse time. Today is the first day of school for students in Fairfax County Public Schools, Manassas Park City Schools, Culpeper County Public Schools, which is offering school bus drivers a $500 signing bonus, and for 92,000 students attending Prince William County Public Schools, where “800 school buses” are hitting the road “as early as 5:30 a.m. this morning to pick up more than 62,000 students.”
The first school bell resounds tomorrow for students in Alexandria City Public Schools, and early this Thursday morning for 83,000 students enrolled in Loudoun County Public Schools, which has “50 unassigned school bus routes” and is offering a “$2,500 signing bonus for new school bus drivers” and a salary hiring range of “$21.34-$30.07 an hour.” The school year will start next Monday, August 30, for 26,895 Pre-K-12 students attending Arlington Public Schools, which has 814 daily school bus trips; for 51,000 DCPS students in Washington, D.C. proper; and students in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland’s largest school district. Expect en route delays on area roadways and “congestion in the immediate vicinity of schools.”
The ring of “inner suburbs” in the Metropolitan Washington region is the locus of three local school districts ranked in the top 20 largest school districts in the nation: Fairfax County, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County. Together, they have a combined enrollment of 500,000 students, tabulates AAA Mid-Atlantic, and a combined school bus fleet that deploys an armada of 4,000 school buses on area roads each school day. With parents forming car pools to ferry their kids and neighborhood kids to area schools, AAA stresses the importance of safety and responsibility while traveling, encouraging not only drivers, but also pedestrians and bicyclists to stay alert and be safe while en route to their destinations. The lack of enough school bus drivers, which preexisted the pandemic, spells more traffic and the need for more precaution and patience, as many area schools resume five days a week of in-person instruction for the first time in months.
“Some school buses are doing double duty runs to get students to school on time in area schools. As school bus trips take longer, and as school bus delays mount, drivers must exercise caution near school bus stops and amid students walking or biking to school. It behooves drivers to practice patience,” said Townsend. “Be aware of the time of day you are on the road and how that coincides with the school day. More school-age pedestrians are killed from 7 to 8 a.m. and from 3 to 4 p.m. than any other hours of the day. In the light of a school bus driver shortfall, it is imperative for parents to ensure that their children board the correct bus. As the school bus driver shortage worsens, it is also important for parents to make sure their kids know the safest way to the exact location where the bus will stop, and the correct bus route number and school name.”
School administrators in Fairfax County explained: “FCPS will need to increase ‘double back’ bus runs, meaning a bus is required to run two scheduled routes back to back that would normally have been covered by two separate buses. These ‘double backs’ may impact delivery time to schools or bus stops and may have a domino effect throughout the day, affecting after-school drop-off times.” It is offering “new school bus drivers a $2,000 signing bonus.”
In view of the likelihood of school bus delays this academic year, Fairfax County Public Schools officials are advising parents and students to have plenty of patience, and informing parents to always check “the Here Comes the Bus (HCtB) app or the FCPS School Bus Delays website for potential delays.” Even so, 75 percent of FCPS students ride school buses. Fairfax County Public Schools or “FCPS is one of the largest school divisions in the U.S. with 198 schools and centers.” FCPS boasts “a diverse student population of more than 188,000 students in grades prekindergarten through 12, speaking over 200 languages.”
Moreover, 64.1% of students attending Montgomery County Public Schools ride school buses each school day. MCPS has an estimated enrollment of 160,564 students at 209 schools, plus 24,589 employees, including teacher, system-wide. The MCPS school bus fleet ferries 103,000 students on 1,300+ yellow school buses each school day. What is more, “Montgomery County school buses provide student transportation to over 200 schools in Montgomery County and special schools in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.”
Prince George’s County has 207 public school houses, and 136,000 students, and it has 1,240 school buses in its school bus fleet, and it boasts the 19th largest school district in the nation. Of that tally, 86,000 students in the county ride the school bus. Each school day, 1,047 school buses are routed along 5,542 school bus routes. At least six out of ten students - 63.2 percent - ride the school bus to school each school day. In contrast, it is estimated that “roughly three-quarters of school-aged children are taken to school by car” in the United States. Area school bus fleets also transport students, teachers and chaperones during field trips and extracurricular activities, as well as student-athletes and coaches to sports activities. Stay alert and exercise extra care when driving in areas with school children present.
Congestion-related travel delays could possibly soar due to the paucity of school bus drivers, and as even more parents drive their children to school or escort them to the bus stop, especially in the event of school bus delays. “More importantly, traffic congestion can be a source of traffic crashes and child pedestrian injuries and deaths.” As area schools open in waves from now until the day after Labor Day, it is incumbent upon drivers, students, and parents to follow AAA’s back-to-school transportation safety rules, such as:
- Expect delays affecting school bus routes across the region, as a result of the school bus driver shortfall.
- Anticipate “overcrowded buses, longer school routes, longer school bus trip times, more stops, more delays for students, and more traffic in school zones.”
- Look out for more carpooling to and from and around area schools with grades prekindergarten through 12.
- Stop if the bus stops. As the driver shortage causes drivers to double up on routes, some drivers fear they will end up with “insufficient time to get from stop to stop, leaving drivers feeling like they have to rush.”
- Be mindful of the evolving school bus driver shortage, and its possible safety consequences. “Pre-pandemic, 87% of USA school transportation professionals reported the bus driver shortage was a major problem.”
- Drive safely. As the school bus driver shortage worsens, parents must avoid unsafe drop-off or pick-up behavior when driving their children to and from school.
- Staggered schedules and social distancing could mean fewer buses and more carpools transporting students.
- Expect an uptick in congestion near schools. More parents may opt to transport their children to and from school, avoiding the school bus ride, but increasing the volume of vehicles during drop-off and pickup.
- More students may take to walking or cycling to school, increasing foot and bicycle traffic close to schools.
- Even though some parents are forming carpools to transport children to school, remember this. “Students are about 70 times more likely to arrive to school safely if they take the school bus instead of traveling by car.”
- Talk to your teen. “High school student drivers may also contribute to traffic congestion problems around schools, particularly because they are inexperienced drivers who often disregard traffic and parking signs.”
- Also “with teen drivers crashing at higher rates than adults, the school bus provides a much safer alternative.”
- It is illegal to pass a school bus that’s loading or unloading students in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The fines are stiff for a reason. “Stop-arm laws protect children from being endangered by motorists.”
- This might take a while. A survey conducted in March by HopSkipDrive found: “More than half of school districts with 25,000 to 100,000 students said they believed it could take three months or more to resume normal transportation operations.”
Here is the upshot. Area school districts say they have “an urgent need for school bus drivers.” They are putting it in the “Want Ads.” Back-to-school transportation safety is paramount as area schools cope with a school bus driver scarceness. AAA’s School’s Open – Drive Carefully has tips to keep kids safe.
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