School transportation will be ‘all hands on deck’ for plan A

Published 12:10 am Sunday, March 28, 2021

SALISBURY — There will be a team effort to get kids to classrooms when middle and high school students are back in buildings more frequently in April.

Amid a bus driver shortage worsened by COVID-19, Rowan-Salisbury Schools Transportation Director Tim Beck said the district plans to work with licensed school staff. Other transportation staff will jump in as well. Beck says he already drives a bus when needed.

“We have a lot of folks who are licensed, even my staff here,” Beck said.

The entire state was facing a shortage of bus drivers before the pandemic, and the previous year has made the situation worse. Beck said a number of the drivers who served middle and high schools opted to stop driving. Many of the drivers were older retirees and did not feel comfortable with the extra exposure that comes with driving a bus. The outflow of drivers has been most difficult for middle and high schools because there are two types of drivers.

For elementary schools, a number of teacher assistants are dual-contract employees, meaning they can drive buses as well. Middle and high school drivers are mostly “outside drivers,” meaning their only job with the district is driving a school bus.

At the elementary level, dual-contract drivers have been able to meet the need, and Beck expects those grades will be fine when they return four days per week on Monday. The same number of dual-contract employees will not be on hand for middle and high schools when they return to plan A on April 8.

There are some teacher assistants at the middle and high school levels, notably in the Exceptional Children Department, but those employees need to be in class.

“We have to be mindful of them because of the students they serve,” Beck said.

Beck said some, but not many, outside drivers have been returning. It’s possible some former drivers found other opportunities that work better for them and will not return. Beck said he understands driving a bus during a pandemic does not work for some people.

“If someone is concerned with COVID, here we are putting them on a bus in really tight quarters,” Beck said.

The district has eased restrictions on how many students can be placed on a bus, and Beck said it would be nearly impossible to make it happen otherwise.

“We’ll get it done. That’s just what we do,” Beck said.

Anthony Vann, associate superintendent of operations, said the return is going to be all hands on deck. He sees transportation as the biggest logistics challenge for returning to plan A with the shortage, but he is confident.

“Tim assures me transportation will make it work,” Vann said. “They always have in the past.”

With more vaccines being administered every week and infection rates dropping, the hope is concerns will go away eventually. The department is already trying to onboard new employees to meet its needs.

You do not need a commercial driver’s license to get hired. If someone is eligible and passes background checks with a good driving record, the district will help with training and getting all the right qualifications. For more information about becoming a bus driver, contact the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Transportation Department at 704-245-6702.

Beck said coming in with a commercial driver license is a plus, but there are endorsements and certifications drivers need in addition to the license.