When Charlottesville preschool and elementary schoolers return to in-person learning Monday, few will be arriving on buses. 

Amid a national shortage in school bus drivers that predated the COVID-19 pandemic, Charlottesville City Schools is urging students to walk, bike or carpool to school. The district has lost 12 bus drivers since September, Sherri Eubanks, pupil transportation supervisor for the school system, said during a Thursday night School Board meeting.

“It’s not because we don’t try to keep them — it’s that they find other employment or because of COVID,” Eubanks said. “We’ve tried to work with a third-party company, and we’re still trying to do that to get bus drivers in, but we’re doing everything we can and we want to transport the kids to school.”

During the 2019-2020 school year, 2,600 students rode school buses to and from school. Starting Monday, 653 students across all city schools — 406 of whom attend preschool through sixth grade — will take a bus to class. 

Most middle and high school students in Charlottesville will not be returning to face-to-face learning just yet. Seventh- through 12th-grade students with particular learning needs — such as special education or English as a second language students — may choose to return to in-person instruction. 

The picture looks grim, but it’s not as grim as it was.

Sherri Eubanks, Charlottesville City Schools pupil transportation supervisor

CCS spokeswoman Beth Cheuk said the limited bus capacity was not a primary factor in the city schools’ decision to exclude older students from next week’s start to in-person instruction. 

“We’ve known since the summer that transportation would be a challenge, but it didn’t drive the plan selection,” Cheuk said in an email to Dexter Auction. 

At five out of six elementary schools, as well as at Walker Upper Elementary, 142 students are on a waiting list for school bus spots. Clark Elementary School has the longest busing waitlist – comprising 29 students – despite a double bus run. 

CCS prioritized students with qualifying special needs, preschool students and Tier 3 support students for spots on school buses. To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, bus capacity is limited to 20 riders, unless sibling groups from the same household are riding together. 

Eubanks said that the district plans to add at least two bus routes on March 15 and expects to bring in a new bus driver the week of March 27. 

“The picture looks grim, but it’s not as grim as it was,” Eubanks said. 

She added that backlogs in bus driver certifications at the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles impede CCS from quickly hiring new drivers. 

To address the busing deficit, Charlottesville’s Safe Routes to School program mapped out walking and biking routes to all city schools. The program will also organize walking and biking groups guided by adult volunteers, offer bike giveaways and establish off-campus drop off points for drivers stuck in traffic. On social media, parents pointed out that some suggested safe routes traverse busy streets or dilapidated sidewalks. 

Board member Lisa Torres encouraged parents to volunteer to supervise children walking or biking to school. 

“There’s probably a great need for monitoring the walkways and some of the crosswalk areas,” Torres said. “That came to my attention today as I visited different schools — that we really are going to need an increased presence of adults just to keep everybody safe.”

Ali Sullivan is a graduate of the University of Virginia. She received a B.A. in Media Studies and Government in 2020.