By Tori Johnsson
Rockbridge County Public Schools, like other schools across the country, can’t find enough bus drivers and substitute teachers because of low pay and the pandemic.
The school system has five full-time positions open, including a school counselor and teaching assistants.
“We have days where teachers are covering classes for other teachers,” RCPS Chief Business Officer Jason Kirby said. “I talked to one of my principals earlier who was teaching a first grade class for part of the day.”
Kirby said that the schools were able to fill all teaching positions last year. But a competitive job market and tight budgets mean lower-pay, part-time positions, like substitute teachers and bus drivers, are especially difficult to fill.
The Rockbridge County schools have limited ability to offer incentives for substitute teachers other than pay raises, Kirby said.
Over the past three years, substitute teachers’ daily pay rose to $100 from $75, while longer-term substitutes earn $125 a day.
The bus driver shortage is less severe, but transportation supervisor Kirstie Campbell said: “I don’t think we’ve ever been comfortable as far as having extra substitutes.”
Local drivers normally complete 47 bus routes a day. They also handle 29 car routes to pick up special needs children. Annual pay starts at $12,461.
During the pandemic, bus drivers also delivered meals, homework and school supplies. “They go the extra mile for the kids,” said RCPS Director of Operations Randy Walters.
But officials worry about the years ahead. School officials are exploring possible increases in bus drivers’ salaries and the benefits package. Other school divisions started offering sign-on bonuses and longevity bonuses, and RCPS may do the same.
Part-time bus driving appeals more to retirees and those married to full-time workers, to work around the morning and afternoon schedules, Campbell said.
“Most of our drivers either could qualify now with full benefits or within the next year or two we’ll have about half of our drivers retire,” Walters said.
Besides, bus driving requires a commercial drivers’ license (CDL) just like trucking, which offers higher pay to fill a growing number of openings.
Both bus driving and teaching positions can be mentally draining, especially during COVID. Bus drivers are in close contact with many children. Teachers have increased responsibilities, like extra cleaning and providing work for quarantining and infected students.
“You know when COVID started, teachers were heroes and everything was wonderful,” Kirby said. “Then after a few months that dynamic started to switch and teachers became – people started to ask why teachers just don’t want to go back to work and that hurt a lot of them personally.”
The status quo of bus driving is stressful. “For the pay you could pretty much do any job for the same amount of money with less responsibility,” Walters said.
“If you like kids, it can be a rewarding job,” Campbell said. “You’re the first person they see in the morning so you can make that child’s day in a lot of senses.”