COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - School districts across our state are still struggling to hire bus drivers. With reduced capacity restrictions and limited buses, some districts are scrambling to bring drivers on board.
Richland Two says it still needs to hire 30 drivers, and if they had to hit the road right now, at least seven buses would have to sit empty. “We’ve got a good bit of drivers who are a little afraid for their health and their family’s health. We’ve got drivers who range in age up to their 70s, who may be at health risks,” said Richland Two Chief Operations Officer, Will Anderson.
Those 30 drivers are needed because in a typical year, the district struggles with drivers getting sick or needing time off, and during the pandemic, they expect even more drivers to be out at one time. “If we’re not fully staffed and ready to roll, we’re going to have some issues,” said Anderson. Richland Two has even upped its bus driver pay to $15.22 an hour to attract drivers. “For the past several years, we’ve made an effort to really pay our drivers if not the top in the state, one of the top in the state,” said Anderson.
Kershaw County is one of the few South Carolina districts offering five days a week in-person learning to start the year, and they are still looking to hire 10 to 15 drivers and 20 to 30 bus driver assistants. These assistants will take students’ temperatures before they get on the bus and also help enforce social distancing and mask-wearing. “We’re in better shape than I thought we were going to be, but we do have a shortage,” said Kershaw County Schools Chief Operations Officer, Billy Smith.
In Kershaw County, half of all students have chosen to return to in-person learning, and out of those 5,500 students, Smith says between 2,000 and 3,000 will be riding the buses to start the year. “We feel confident that we can run the routes with our buses using the protocols that the state department has given us of how to seat them on the bus to be able to run just one route. But if we can’t, we have a schedule that allows for a later start for those who we would have to pick up on a second route,” Smith explained.
Double routing means a longer day for students, but less time inside the classroom. Richland Two drivers already triple and quadruple route their buses. “A kid who may have gotten on the same bus at 7:30 am last year may be getting on that bus at 6:30 am, sitting at school until school starts at 8 am and then vice versa. Their day has now gone from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm to 6:30 am to 5:30 pm away from home and at school,” Anderson said.
Richland Two is starting the year virtually, but the district will still be utilizing bus drivers to get resources like meals, IT help, tutoring, and social or emotional assistance into communities.
Both districts say they will be providing plenty of PPE for drivers, but they say some of their longtime drivers have chosen not to return because of safety concerns. That’s not the case for 11-year driver Olisha Durant. “I miss picking them up in the morning and saying, “good morning,” and they’re giving me Ms. Durant and how was your morning?” she explained.
She’s eager to get back to transporting students and encourages anyone interested to give it a shot. “It’s kind of like being a nurse. You know you went into this field. It could be something that happens, but you prepare and do your disinfectant and follow protocol, and I feel we will definitely be good,” said Durant.
Kershaw County will also be checking students’ temperatures before they get on the bus. If a student has a temperature or feels sick, and there is no parent in sight, they will sit that student at the front of the bus until they get to school and then take them to the isolation room.