Chronic late buses frustrate Alachua County Public School parents as the fifth month of school continues to be marked by delays of up to 90 minutes.
Skylah Banks, 36, a Gainesville resident, waited to leave for her 2 p.m. shift until her two third-graders came home from Marjorie K. Rawlings Elementary at 3500 NE 15th St.
“Yesterday, they didn’t get home until right at 5 o’clock,” Banks said.
She was three hours late for her job at Walmart.
The district and school send her updates on how late buses will be, but she said the afternoon time estimates are not accurate.
In addition to the delayed bus notifications, she also receives calls from the Rawlings attendance office.
“The attendance office calls every day and says they’re missing school,” Banks said. Although the excused tardies will not affect their records, her children are still missing instructional time.
Banks’ children are not alone. Route 1027, which serves Buchholz High School, Fort Clarke Middle School and Meadowbrook Elementary School, has a tendency for tardiness – running up to 90 minutes late 18 times in January. Route 2029, which also serves Buchholz High, Fort Clarke Middle and Meadowbrook Elementary along with Kanapaha Middle, has arrived late 51 times since Jan. 5.
The district reported 37 late buses on Thursday. This is about the same as the first three weeks of January when the district reported more than 30 late buses each day.
ACPS’ bus problem is nothing new. Late buses have been abundant throughout the school year due to a shortage of bus drivers, abundant absences and low wages. COVID-19 related absences caused nearly 50 late buses on Jan. 10 and Jan. 11, ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson said.
The district experienced a surge in late buses alongside the surge in new COVID-19 staff cases.
As new staff cases dropped by more than half, bus delay began to ease, Johnson said. Despite the improvement Monday with 19 late buses, and Tuesday with 20, Wednesday had 46 and Thursday had 37.
Though buses are still reported as tardy, the delay has been shorter this past week with late times of 15, 20 and 30 minutes, Johnson said. However, 13 of the 37 late buses Thursday were delayed by 90 minutes or more, leaving students to miss instructional time or arrive home much later than expected.
These issues are not county specific. Nationwide, school districts are plagued by bus driver shortages and delays. The U.S. Department of Education even offered a temporary option to waive a portion of the commercial driver's license skills test to alleviate the shortage of school bus drivers.
In an effort to improve conditions for current bus drivers, the Alachua County Education Association met with the district to discuss a reclassification of the bus driver job description so drivers could earn more money.
Superintendent Carlee Simon approved the reclassification of bus drivers Dec. 13, giving each driver at least an 8% increase in pay, Tessmann said.
A driver who earned $13.95 an hour will now earn $15.84 an hour.
Reclassification is not a raise but is a change in the pay grade for a specific job title, ACEA service unit director Crystal Tessmann said.
“Even with the reclassification, our bus drivers aren’t getting paid what they deserve, as with all of our employees,” Tessman said.
She hopes the pay increase will help retain bus drivers, as failure to keep drivers leads to vacancies and delayed routes.
“We don’t have a fully staffed group of bus drivers,” Tessmann said. “We have way too many vacancies so that just exacerbates absences.”
The district, even when all of its substitute bus drivers report to work, is short 28 drivers, Johnson said.
ACPS continues to seek out qualified bus drivers and will pay for the required CDL training as well as school bus endorsements. Even though a higher hourly pay with available overtime is now offered, shortages and delays continue.
Contact Emma Behrmann at @email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @emmabehrmann.
Emma Behrmann is a fourth-year journalism major and the Fall 2023 digital managing editor. In the past, she was metro desk editor, K-12 education reporter and a university news assistant. When she's not reporting, she's lifting at the gym.