Richland Two holding career fair to address bus driver shortage

Published: Sep. 20, 2021 at 9:28 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Many Midlands students have been back in the classroom for a little over a month, and yet they are still experiencing delays in their daily commute due to a nationwide bus shortage.

Lexington School District One Transportation Director Bill Kurts has called it the worst bus driver shortage he’s seen in more than 30 years, and L1 still needs to fill 36 openings for bus drivers. In addition to those unfilled positions, an additional 11 are absent with COVID-19 or other health-related issues.

RELATED STORY | Current bus driver shortage is the worst L1 Transportation Director seen in more than 30 years

Richland School District Two is taking a unique approach to address its staffing needs. The district is hosting a career fair this weekend for prospective drivers. Those interested will have the opportunity to meet current bus drivers and learn more about R2′s newly approved Bus Driver Recruitment and Incentive Plan.

In a release, the district wrote that this event aims to “address this need which directly impacts the district’s ability to deliver premier teaching and learning services to students.”

R2′s Chief Operations Officer Will Anderson, who oversees a number of departments including transportation, said it’s “critical” for students that the district has a fully staffed group of drivers, and he hopes the career fair will help move the R2 closer to that goal. But in the meantime, the district is working on ways to minimize delays for students as well.

“If we don’t have enough drivers, our students are going to be late, they’re going to be spending a lot of time on the bus, and that negatively impacts their learning environment,” he said. “And so we really that we can get more drivers who are going to be able to be that first face in the morning, be happy to see them, get their day started right.”

According to Anderson, the district has enough drivers staffed for the 127 buses that the state provides but needs more drivers to address absences related to COVID-19 and other illnesses.

12 percent of the district’s bus driver positions are unfilled. Of a target 148 positions, R2 has 130 bus drivers.

For comparison, Richland School District One has 55 vacancies for the same positions and is currently down 26 percent of its drivers. However, R1 noted that 15 are at various stages in the hiring process.

Lexington-Richland School District 5, which serves fewer students than L1, R1 & R2, is only down six drivers. District officials said that currently, parents are not experiencing any delays linked to staffing.

If the R2 were fully staffed, it would be able to deploy a number of district-owned buses, which would minimize delays, and hopefully ease parents’ concerns.

“Our job is to take care of your precious cargo and that’s those children. And so we’re never going to jeopardize safety, but just understand we are working with you to make sure your kids get to school safely. So just hang in there and if we get more drivers, we’ll get those times more accurate, and we’ll get those kids to and from school.”

R2 also has an app to alert parents if buses are running late.

“We’re not perfect but I think we’ve got a pretty good system in process where if you’re a bus rider, you know if your bus is late and you’ve kind of got a pretty good idea,” Anderson said. “We’re working right now on some new software to get better communication, faster communication, and more accurate communication to parents so they know exactly where the bus is and when the bus will arrive.”

R2 is also considering shifting school start times as pediatric health experts say middle schoolers should start classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m. R2 middle schools currently start at 7:30 a.m.

The main purpose of this potential shift is academic, but Anderson said the impact it could have on transportation operations is “very important” too. If this change goes into effect, he said it could provide more flexibility for drivers.

“If you’re able to expand that window a little bit more, then you’ve got more time to get kids to and from school,” Anderson said.

R2 will be having district-level planning meetings in October to discuss these potential changes to school start times. Any changes would not be instituted until the next school year.

The career fair will run from 8 a.m. until noon this Saturday at the Richland Two Institute of Innovation on Fashion Drive in Columbia.

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