GREENSBORO — Students who go to high school in Greensboro and High Point won't be able to ride school buses for at least the next two weeks, Guilford County Schools announced Friday.
The surprising announcement comes at a time when 76 of the district's drivers are temporarily out of work after having tested positive for COVID-19. Superintendent Sharon Contreras said that those absences came on top of the district's pre-existing driver shortage and it's believed that more will follow.
Contreras said local government leaders have agreed to give free rides on Greensboro and High Point city buses to students who show their student ID. The district expects to send more information to families this weekend, including details about how to access routes closest to their homes.
Parents are asked to take their children to school if possible.
Students with special needs who have transportation as part of their individualized education plan will be able to continue using district school buses.
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Contreras said parents have stressed how damaging past COVID-19 school closures were for students and she wants to keep that from happening again.
Contreras said she believes the move to be unprecedented for Guilford County Schools, though it is not the only district currently facing similar challenges. She hopes that ceasing service to high schools in Greensboro and High Point, where city public transportation is available, will allow the district to transport students to its other schools.
Late Thursday night the district announced that middle and high school start times would be delayed to give remaining drivers more time to get students to school. Middle schools started about an hour later on Friday and high schools and early colleges about 90 minutes later.
“The challenges just get greater and greater,” said Agretta Locklair Scott, a Guilford County Schools bus driver.
Scott said that, like other drivers, she started out the week on Monday driving into work in the snow only to find out school was canceled.
She said drivers’ schedules were upended again by a two-hour weather delay on Tuesday and by the school delays on Friday, with many drivers working long, unanticipated hours.
Scott said that many drivers have retired without their positions being filled.
She called on the district to do more to increase pay, including for veteran drivers.
Friday was the first time Scott had ever seen the district delay school due to a shortage of drivers, but she wasn't surprised.
“Sometimes you just see things coming unless there’s a change for the better,” she said.
Contreras said that Guilford County Schools is using many of the same tactics to attract drivers as other districts around the country, including offering incentives, bringing the minimum starting salary up to $15 per hour and paying up to $1,000 extra per month for drivers with perfect attendance.
She explained that a major hiring obstacle is the commercial driver’s license requirements that bus drivers must fulfill prior driving the buses, and said federal officials are looking at ways to possibly loosen some of those requirements given the shortage.
KaTrinka Brown, the principal of Jackson Middle School, said it seemed clear this week that it was becoming more difficult for the district to get students to school.
In some instances, members of her staff picked up students.
Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.