Several weeks into the school year, Jessica Johnson’s son, a student at Hampton Oaks Elementary School in Stafford County, started crying at night.
He was worrying about his bus ride the next day, Johnson said.
His school day ends at 3:40 p.m. but the 6-year-old was regularly getting home at 5 p.m. and sometimes as late as 5:30 p.m. if traffic was bad, his mom said.
“His anxiety spread to the morning and during the day,” she wrote in an email to The Free Lance–Star.
Johnson said she has an app that shows where her son’s school bus is, so she could see that it was not arriving at Hampton Oaks until 4 p.m. or after. Her son would worry that his bus home wouldn’t come at all.
“Even though school ends at 3:40, there have been days that my son has not left the school until as late as 4:20,” she said. “That is too long to expect young children to wait, and then they have an almost hour-long bus ride.”
Johnson said she contacted the school division’s transportation department and was told the problem was due to a shortage of bus drivers and that there was “no solution.”
“[They said] that his bus would be as late as 5 p.m. all year, and that was that,” she said.
More than a month into the school year, 16 school bus routes in Stafford are without permanent drivers, the school division’s transportation department confirmed Wednesday.
There are six additional drivers who are on long-term medical leave and whose routes are being filled by substitutes, according to Barry Sudduth, executive director of transportation and fleet services.
Sudduth said the division needs 20 new permanent bus drivers to fill the open positions.
Other area school systems are in better shape.
Spotsylvania County schools spokeswoman René Daniels said four routes in the division do not have assigned bus drivers. She said the school division is always recruiting and hiring bus drivers and bus aides.
Spokespersons for the public school systems in Fredericksburg and Caroline and King George counties say all their routes are covered by assigned drivers.
Parents across Stafford said the driver shortage is affecting their children’s school day, as well as their own work day.
Christina Mellors, the parent of a student at Conway Elementary, said the bus route that goes through her neighborhood has been filled by different substitute bus drivers since school started and the children have been assigned to several different bus numbers.
On one occasion, she said, the bus took the neighborhood children back to Conway instead of completing the afternoon drop-off route.
The transportation department would not confirm the incident, but Mellors said it occurred Sept. 4.
“I got a call at 4:45 p.m. from the school asking me to come and pick up my kid,” Mellors said.
The following morning, she said, the bus drove past their neighborhood without stopping.
Mellors’s neighbor, Jenny Stamm, said she worries about substitute bus drivers who don’t know the neighborhood children and confusion stemming from changing bus assignments.
“The concern is that kids will now get on whatever bus pulls up in front of the house and it might not be the right one,” she said.
She added that on one occasion, the substitute bus driver didn’t know her neighbor’s kindergartner was still on the bus and told her everyone had been dropped off.
Other elementary school parents said buses have to do multiple runs to schools each day and that their children are not even picked up until after 9 a.m., when school starts.
Parents of students at Falmouth Elementary School shared screenshots of the bus app showing their buses were scheduled to arrive “on schedule” at their child’s stop at 9:02 a.m.
Bonnie Rossi, one of the parents who sent screenshots from the app, said that after eating breakfast with her kindergartner at school one morning, she saw “school buses arrive well after 9 a.m. with hungry children on them waiting for their breakfast, and they shuffle the children off to their class at 9:15 with breakfast in a plastic bag.”
Kate Farrell, whose daughter attends Stafford Elementary School, said her daughter usually arrives at school on the bus at 9 a.m.—the start of the school day—but has been as much as 25 minutes late. In the afternoon, the bus is supposed to arrive at her stop at 4:23 p.m. but usually arrives closer to 5 p.m.
“Most days, her bus hasn’t even returned to the school to start the second route when her bus is scheduled to arrive at our stop,” Farrell wrote in an email. “An hour and ten minutes past the end of school, and we live 1.2 miles from the school.”
Parents said they do not blame the bus drivers for the problems.
“The bus drivers I have met are hard-working, conscientious people who are doing their best, but they are greatly understaffed and underpaid,” Johnson said.
Sudduth said the bus routes without permanent drivers affect all four county high schools and all eight county middle schools.
“The routes are filled by office staff and some are divided among buses that can handle extra students without being overcrowded,” he wrote in an email. “Ten of the buses have tablets in them that give audible stop-by-stop directions, and the other substitutes are given paper directions.”
Sudduth said transportation staff “is working to find areas where some routes can be combined.”
He also said training classes for new potential bus drivers are held each month and there are 14 trainee bus drivers in class.
According to a presentation Sudduth gave to the Stafford County School Board Aug. 13, 16 of the 66 drivers who started last school year did not return this year, reflecting a turnover rate of between 5 percent and 6 percent.
In the presentation, Sudduth said the starting hourly rate of $15.76 for bus drivers poses a retention challenge.
The rate is lower than Spotsylvania, where Daniels said the starting rate for bus drivers is $17.21, and counties to the north of Stafford.
According to Sudduth’s August presentation, the starting rates for drivers in Prince William and Fauquier counties are $18.57 and $16.98 per hour, respectively.
In Caroline, starting bus driver pay is $13.09 per hour. In King George, it is $15.06 and in Fredericksburg, it is $15.25.
Johnson said the solution to the problem would be for the Stafford Board of Supervisors to fully fund the schools’ budget.
“They need to pay drivers more so they can get them and keep them,” she said.