Every morning Shirley Doolittle has a giant puzzle to solve: How to safely deliver thousands of Columbia County school children to and from school.
It’s always complicated, ensuring drivers are in their buses and out covering the county’s 194 bus routes, picking up children on time and getting them to school before the bell rings in the morning, and then doing it all in reverse that afternoon.
The puzzle has a lot of moving parts and daily obstacles that get thrown in the way. Buses break down, drivers get sick, road construction changes routes and a dozen of other variables make daily adjustments necessary to find a solution.
This year, however, the puzzle has become real brain teaser, with the county down more than 20 drivers to cover its 194 bus routes.
Doolittle, the county’s Assistant Director of Transportation, rises every morning at 5 a.m. and is in the office an hour later, answer phone calls and returning texts, as she and her team captains work make sure they have a plan to get trough the day.
“In the morning it is a bigger issue because it is more difficult to plan,” said Doolittle, explaining that with almost 190 drivers, she can almost count on at least one absence to deal with each day.
In most school year’s this is manageable. The county has slots for 223 bus drivers, including substitutes to handle most situations. This summer however, 22 of those drivers failed to return for the first day of school, according to Dewayne Porter, Director of Transportation.
Porter said 11 of those were a complete surprise.
“We didn’t find out until late July, when they just didn’t show up,” he said. “We had to track them down to find out what was going on.”
He said many of the driver’s who resigned found other jobs or moved away, without giving notice.
Now the county is in a scramble to find drivers to fill empty slots, which Porter said isn’t an easy task.
The job requires a commercial driver’s license and a clean record, something that isn’t easy to come by.
Porter said they had a number of applicants at a recent job fair, but few were qualified.
“We eliminated 10 right off the bat by looking at the driver’s history,” he said, explaining that the county has high standards for bus driver’s but it is necessary to ensure the safety of the children they carry.
Applicants with a commercial license can usually be behind the wheel of a bus within a couple weeks of training, he said, For those without that license, the county will train them as well, but that process usually takes about six weeks.
With that in mind, Porter said a solution to the driver shortage isn’t coming soon.
In the meantime, Doolittle and bus drivers, such as Christina Moye, will have to work through the logistical issues each day to get the job done.
Moye, who serves as the team captain for the Evans High School bus zone, said she is short three drivers this year, which makes every day a tough problem to solve.
So far, Moye has had to rely on Evans Middle School drivers to pitch in and take on parts of routes that can be run with her 10 drivers. As it is, high schoolers are cramming into the bus, three to a seat and some buses have to make double runs to deliver every child.
“Right now I’m having to pick up and extra bus load of students,” she said, “This year has been definitely the most challenging in eight years.”