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Schools considering staggered start times due to driver shortage
Liberty County School District logo

The buses will start rolling for the 2023-24 school year in less than a month, and the Liberty County School System is trying to find routes around a driver shortage.

Board members are weighing a three-tiered start to the school day, with elementary, middle and high schools starting at staggered times. On the table for consideration is moving the start of school for elementary grades from 7:30 a.m. to 7:20 a.m., for middle schoolers from 8:20 a.m. to 9 a.m. and for high schoolers from 8:20 a.m. to 8:10 a.m. The end of the school day, under the proposal, would come at 2 p.m. for elementary school students, 3:50 p.m. for middle school students and 3:10 p.m. for high schoolers.

The lack of drivers means some buses are running two routes, and that means kids are late getting to school, Superintendent Dr. Franklin Perry pointed out.

“To get them to school at a better time, we have got to do something different,” he said. “We understand change. We do. But what I would ask our parents to understand, there is a situation in the workforce. This is a change that may not sit well with everybody but it is necessary.

“That is our choice — we continue to get our students late or everybody chip in and we do this,” Dr. Perry continued. “We just feel like we don’t have a choice because of the shortage of drivers. Our children need to get to school on time.”

The school system has 130 buses and there are 85 daily routes for drivers. But, as of June 22, there are only 78 drivers. Eight drivers are going through training and are expected to be ready by July 28.

However, on average, the system has five drivers out for various reasons on extended leave and averages 10-12 callouts a day. Currently, the system has 35 vacancies for bus drivers.

“Right now, I have no substitutes,” schools transportation director Tracee Hill told board members.

Hill said there is a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers, which the COVID-19 pandemic and demand from private businesses has compounded.

Dr. Perry added that buses running late in the afternoon when school is out is cutting into the time teachers go through professional training after school is done for the day because they have to supervise the kids who have not been picked up for a bus ride home.

During March 2023 alone, there was an average of 22 late buses a day and a total of 482 late buses for the month.

The school system is recruiting for new drivers, and Hill detailed her department’s efforts to add to its number of drivers, including offering CDL prep courses.

Hill said the new start times also will allow students to get breakfast at their schools, if they choose, and that no student will be picked up prior to 6 a.m. each day.

“Last year, I got several phone calls about late buses,” said board Chair Verdell Jones. “It is certainly important we do something.”

Board member Marcus Scott said the system has tried this before and parents issued their concerns. He said a survey done after the move showed 57% of the parents who responded did not want the change for the start of middle school.

“Is this going to be the silver bullet? Are we not going to have any more late buses?” he asked.

Hill said she couldn’t guarantee that this will eliminate buses getting to schools late.

“But this will assist our students in getting to school sooner than what we are providing them now,” she said.

Hill said she looked at other school systems that have gone to the three-tier system, including Bryan County, Richmond County and Muscogee County, and it has worked well there.

Board members also asked about the gap in the start times for elementary and middle schools and how parents with children in both who take their kids to school would handle that. Hill said the schools would work with the parents to accommodate students who have to be dropped off early.

“We would make sure someone is there to receive those children whose parents drop them off early,” Dr. Perry said.

Jones also stressed that student safety is a concern.

“We don’t children standing on the side of the street waiting for buses,” she said.

Dr. Perry said that going to three tiers also should cut back on the number of altercations taking place between middle and high school students on the same bus.

“Fights between middle and high school students are excessive,” he said. “We think one of the advantages is going to be separating the middle school from the high school.”

Jones asked for more data, such as the costs involved and how much time students will spend on buses. The board is scheduled to hold its regular monthly meeting July 11.

“But we agree wholeheartedly this shortage has caused a problem,” she said. “We do want to make sure our kids are at school on time and safely.”

Dr. Perry said school system officials have worked extensively on a solution to the bus driver shortage “This is a difficult situation,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s one we really have a choice. We’re getting children late to school. I think this is a decision we’re just going to have to make. We’ve got to do something different.”

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