Wake runs ‘learning labs’ to supervise students stuck at school due to driver shortage

Wake County is paying teachers and instructional assistants extra money to supervise students who are on campus longer than normal because of the school system’s bus driver shortage.

Some Wake bus riders are arriving at school much earlier than normal or are staying later than usual due to bus routes being stretched. Since traditional-calendar schools began last week, Wake has been operating “Learning Lab” programs at individual schools to watch those students.

“We’re able to pay both certified and non-certified staff to stay before and after school to supervise students so that they are safe and kept out of harm’s way while they’re waiting for their bus or for school to start in the morning,” Bob Snidemiller, senior director of transportation, told the school board on Tuesday.

School administrators hope the hiring of additional bus drivers will reduce how many students need to be served by the labs. While employees are getting extra pay, it means working longer than they’re supposed to on a school day.

“We hope to have fewer staff working in the Learning Labs,” said AJ Muttillo, assistant superintendent of human resources.

To help keep the vacancy rate down, the board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a plan to offer a new $1,000 annual bonus to existing bus drivers to encourage them to stay. The board will also vote on restructuring a $1,200 bonus for new bus drivers so that they get the money in their first paycheck instead of waiting a year to get the full amount.

‘Strong’ first week of bus service

There is a statewide and national shortage of school bus drivers. But Wake has been particularly hard hit, starting the school year short 315 drivers with a 35.75% vacancy rate.

Wake’s initial plan to deal with the driver shortage was to offer every other week bus service to some students. But when the school board complained, the transportation office revised routes to provide all bus riders with a driver at the cost of some buses arriving very early or very late daily.

A school bus arrives at Winchester Drive and Paula Ann Court en route to Pleasant Grove Elementary School on the first day of school for Wake County Public School System students, Monday, Aug. 28, 2023, in Raleigh, N.C.

Around 3,000 students began the school year on bus routes scheduled to arrive each day after classes have started. Snidemiller said the system is waiting for routes to settle in the first few weeks before making changes.

In the first week of traditional-calendar classes, Snidemiller said 96% of the 1,753 bus routes ran on time and arrived before classes started. Of the 70 that arrived late, he said 29 were planned to be late.

“Though we saw a good start to the first week of school, we know we’ve got some more work to do,” Snidemiller told the board.

In addition, Snidemiller said all 226 transportation routes serving special-education students had a driver and that their “on-time performance is strong.”

Prioritizing low-income schools

As new drivers complete training, Wake will prioritize assigning them to runs for Title I schools. Title I is a federal designation for schools that have large numbers of economically disadvantaged students.

Snidemiller said 22 of the 70 late-arriving buses during the first week were at Title I schools

“I want to make sure this doesn’t have a disparate impact on Black and brown students,” said school board member Tara Waters.

The district will let families know about the route changes on wcpss.net/busupdates.

New drivers in pipeline

More new drivers will be starting soon.

Including Tuesday, transportation staff will have presented to the school board since Aug. 1 the names of 17 new bus drivers it wants to hire.

Another 50 job candidates have been invited to attend a CDL (commercial driver’s license) class next week.

The district anticipates hiring four to six new drivers a week in September and October.

Bus driver advertising will continue throughout the school year.

At the urging of the board, administrators lifted the requirement that new bus drivers not have a moving violation in the past 12 months to be hired.