ABINGDON, Va. — When public schools across the country opened to a new school year, administrators knew they would face challenging issues — from battling the dangers of COVID-19 to the wearing of masks in classrooms.
But many likely didn’t realize that a bus driver shortage would complicate things.
When schools started in Washington County in August, four of the county’s 85 routes were open with no drivers. According to Tom Williams, transportation supervisor for Washington County Public Schools, those openings are currently being filled by substitute drivers while the county searches for more part-time drivers.
Williams said the shortages actually began before COVID-19 hit the region.
“It started for us about five years ago, when we had trouble attracting people to the job. At one point, we had 25 substitute drivers on our list. Now, we’re lucky if we have six or seven drivers available to fill in.”
The supervisor isn’t really sure what caused the drop a few years ago. However, he believes the dangers of COVID-19 have contributed to those recent low numbers.
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“Since the pandemic, it’s been increasingly hard to get drivers. At one point during the pandemic, some people were scared to return to work, especially older drivers with compromised health conditions,” he said.
Williams said the availability of vaccines has helped ease some of those fears.
He believes pandemic unemployment benefits also may have contributed to a shortage of people applying for the bus driver jobs. He hopes the end of the benefits will push more people back to work.
When COVID-19 caused the cancellations of most extracurricular activities at schools during the 2020-21 school year, bus drivers missed out on extra income from additional assignments. Williams said that may have caused drivers to look elsewhere for work.
“It’s been a very difficult time,” said Williams, who started a program about two years ago to attract more substitute drivers.
The floating substitute program offers part-time drivers the same benefits received by other contracted drivers.
The supervisor said the part-time drivers float from one assignment to another.
“This morning, they may be on one bus and by this afternoon they may be on another bus. It’s a good job for many people.”
He hopes more local people will consider applying.
“It’s a great job for people who are retired and are looking for something to do or to supplement their incomes,” he said.
The flexibility is ideal for those who go to work at another job during the middle of the day and return to drive students home at the end of the school day, he said.
To learn more about becoming a school bus driver, contact Williams at (276) 739-3054 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Applicants can also go online at www.wcs.k12.va.us to complete applications.
Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at email@example.com.