What Triangle families need to know as most students return to area classrooms Monday

School buses will fill roads and traffic will get congested around schools starting Monday as more than 1 million North Carolina public school students attend their first day of classes.

New bus routes, new meal prices and new state laws impacting the LGBTQ community are among the things parents, students and teachers will encounter when traditional-calendar schools open. Warmer than normal temperatures this summer could also cause schools to close early if the air conditioning goes out.

Here are some things to know heading into the 2023-24 school year:

School bus driver shortages

The continuing local, statewide and national school bus driver shortage could affect your child’s bus ride this year.

Wake County has a 35.75% bus driver vacancy rate. This means the school system had to stretch routes out to provide every bus rider with a driver.

A Wake County school bus driver returns to a parking area on Capital Blvd. in Raleigh after completing a morning route Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. A bus driver shortage means 3,000 Wake County students are scheduled to start the school year arriving after classes have started.

Around 3,000 Wake County students will start the school year arriving each day after classes have started. Some students will arrive more than a half hour late.

Those 3,000 students will also be picked up later from school in the afternoon, requiring more teachers to stay late to watch them.

Nearly 7,900 students are scheduled to arrive within 10 minutes of the start of classes. They’ll run the risk of being late as well if there are traffic delays.

Wake is hoping to adjust the routes when new drivers complete their training.

Despite driver vacancies, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system was able to avoid changing school start times. But the district has combined some routes so that elementary school students are riding with middle school students. Other routes have middle school students riding with high school students.

AC problems and building delays

Conditions on some campuses are uncertain at the start of the school year.

Teachers at more than 50 Wake County schools are complaining that their building’s air conditioning system isn’t working properly during hot weather.

At least seven Wake schools that were open this summer had to close early for one or more days because of problems with their air conditioning. School officials say more early releases are inevitable when traditional-calendar students return to campus.

In Durham, the opening of the new Northern High School has been delayed from Monday until Thursday. The district blamed the delay on a recent storm that caused extensive power outages in Durham.

School lunch prices going up

Once Wake County students arrive at school, they’ll face higher meal prices.

Wake raised the cost of a full-price student lunch by 25 cents to $3.25 in elementary schools and to $3.50 in middle schools and high schools. The district says the price increase is needed to offset higher wages for cafeteria staff, higher food production costs, strict federal regulations and the loss of some federal funding.

Nicolas Shahin holds his new fiber lunch tray in the cafeteria at Kingswood Elementary School in Cary, N.C., in this 2018 file photo.

In Wake, 12 of the 198 schools now qualify for the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). This allows all students at the school to get a free breakfast and lunch regardless of their family’s income.

Johnston County ramped up CEP participation for the new school year so that universal free meals will be available in most schools. Only Clayton High, Cleveland Elementary, Cleveland High, Corinth Holders High and Powhatan Elementary aren’t eligible for the CEP program.

Most school districts operate “angel” programs, where parents and other community members can donate money to help pay the meals of students who don’t have any money left in their account. In Wake County, go to wcpss.net/Page/43961 for information on how to donate.

New Wake school visitor rules

Visiting your child’s school in Wake County will be different this school year.

Every visitor will now have to check in at the school front office on a new computerized visitor management system. It verifies people’s identities and checks if they’re on sex offender registries or other lists barring people from being on campus.

Every Wake County school will use the Verkada guest management system. The system will check if a visitor is on a nationwide sex offender registry or on a district database of people who have a trespass, domestic protection or child custody order.

Visitors will need to provide their name and date of birth and have their photo taken. People are asked to bring a driver’s license or other state-approved ID to speed up the sign-in process.

People with no ID, or who are bringing passports or consulate IDs, may be manually signed in by the front office staff.

‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ now law

How schools interact with parents and teach elementary school classes will also be different because of the new “Parents’ Bill of Rights” law adopted by Republican lawmakers.

Schools must notify parents if their child wants to use a different name or pronoun. The law also bars “instruction in gender identity, sexual activity and sexuality” in the curriculum in kindergarten through fourth-grade classrooms.

Most school districts are still reviewing how to implement the new law. But some changes are coming.

Parents may be notified if their child wants to use a nickname or anglicized version of their name, not just if they’re using a name that may reflect a different gender than what’s on their birth certificate.

Kindergarten teacher Savannah Herring works in her classroom at Beaverdam Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, August 23, 2023.

The new rules on K-4 curriculum are also expected to keep teachers from using books such as “Melissa” that tell the story of transgender people.

Another part of the law will require schools to get parental permission for their children to participate in surveys that ask questions about things such as their sexual behavior and if they’ve had suicidal thoughts.

Another new state law, called the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” will bar transgender females from playing on women’s athletic teams in middle schools, high schools and colleges.