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A need for bus drivers forces school districts to be creative

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Maybe your family is living out the consequences of this next story with some unplanned carpooling. There are not enough school bus drivers right now. Some cities are trying some innovative ways to get kids to class. Megan Pauly with VPM News reports on a school district in Charlottesville, Va., that's trying something called walking school buses.

MICHEL ANN SIZEMORE: OK, my blue bus friends, are we ready?

MEGAN PAULY, BYLINE: Elementary school teacher Michel Ann Sizemore wears a bright yellow safety vest and carries a clipboard to mark off the names of students on her walking bus.

SIZEMORE: All right, here we go, friend. Can I put this on here? It says blue.

PAULY: Sizemore puts stickers on the hands of three little kids to indicate they're on the blue bus. She holds up a clear umbrella, and they set out single-file on the three-quarter mile walk to school. Walking school buses usually include two teachers - one at the front and one at the back. This small group only has one adult, so I tag along as the caboose.

JULIAN MICKEY: And look at my backpack.

PAULY: Oh, "Paw Patrol."

I walk next to 6-year-old Julian Mickey, who was very excited about his backpack. It's the first day of school, and there's plenty along the way to keep us entertained, including a high-five from a construction worker, plastic flamingos in someone's yard and spiderwebs in the shrubbery.

JULIAN: Oh, it's a spiderweb.

PAULY: Yeah, lots of spiderwebs.

JULIAN: You got to be careful.

PAULY: Julian is among hundreds of Charlottesville students from pre-school through high school who no longer have bus service.

KIM POWELL: The resuming of in-person instruction after the pandemic - that's when things really shifted here.

PAULY: That's Kim Powell, chief operations officer for Charlottesville City Schools. She says the district lost a significant number of drivers this past school year.

POWELL: A lot of times, people would choose driving a school bus as something to do in retirement. And with the pandemic, a lot of retirees reconsidered if that was the best type of work for them to be doing.

PAULY: The same dynamic has played out across the country. That's according to Curt Macysyn. He's executive director of the National School Transportation Association, and he says filling these vacancies takes time.

CURT MACYSYN: It's not like you can take somebody from a hiring event, put them through a couple weeks of - or even a couple days of training and get them on the road.

PAULY: In addition to Virginia, districts in other states, like Texas and Missouri, have had to tell more students that they'll have to walk or find another way to get to school, especially those living within a mile or two. This past school year, when Charlottesville found itself with just a handful of drivers for around 4,500 kids, school officials knew they had to do something different. That's when they implemented the walking school buses. Right now, there are seven of them.

SIZEMORE: All right, this sidewalk's a little narrow. Go in front of me. All right, stay on the sidewalk.

PAULY: Back on the blue bus, the walkers turn a corner and trudge up a small hill.

JULIAN: I cannot get up there.

PAULY: At the top is a crossing guard. The district has been working with the city to hire more of them to get more walkers to school safely. They're also working together to make the streets safer, including widening those sidewalks.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED CROSSING GUARD: Good morning, have a good day.

PAULY: Good morning.

The crossing guard wishes kids a happy first day as they near the school.

UNIDENTIFIED CROSSING GUARD: I hope y'all have a great day of school.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Have a great day.

UNIDENTIFIED CROSSING GUARD: See you tomorrow.

PAULY: But those changes aren't enough for some parents to feel comfortable with their kids joining the walking bus. Mocita Thomas has a 5- and 9-year-old.

MOCITA THOMAS: You never know how a kid's mind works. And then you trying to keep them in one straight line, and then they can see something and run off. Like, no, I don't think it's safe for my kids. But some people is OK with it.

PAULY: Some people like Shaquille Stinnie. She plans to have her 6-year-old daughter take the walking bus.

SHAQUILLE STINNIE: It's going to be OK for, like, the first two weeks. And after that, it's going to be whining - my legs, my legs, my legs.

PAULY: District leaders say these walking buses are here to stay in Charlottesville, though that doesn't mean they've ruled out other strategies. Some districts in other states are even paying parents to take their kids to school.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Pauly in Charlottesville, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF HYAKKEI'S "SEVEN-COLOR SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.