A shortage of available bus drivers at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has stalled the district’s plans to bring middle school students back for in-person learning beginning Nov. 23.
Instead, sixth- through eighth-graders in K-8 schools will return to classrooms Nov. 30 while those in traditional middle schools will have to wait until Jan. 5, 2021. The school board approved these changes Nov. 10.
Superintendent Earnest Winston said the rationale behind his recommendation was for the health and safety of students as well as to remain in compliance with Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders regarding social distancing on buses.
This has been complicated by a lack of available bus drivers, a problem administrators said emerged in recent weeks.
CMS has 1,005 buses scheduled for the 2020-21 school year, but only 877 drivers available to transport students. That’s because 122 drivers are on approved leave with more awaiting decisions. There’s also six vacancies.
Federal leaves permitted through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act are set to expire on Dec. 31.
School board members Rhonda Cheek, Sean Strain and Margaret Marshall did not support the superintendent’s recommendation.
“To me, this isn’t a health and safety issue,” Cheek said. “It’s an operation failure and we are letting down our kids.”
Strain echoed Cheek’s sentiments.
“I’m devastated that we’re not going to be able to meet the needs of our sixth- to eighth-graders that should be and deserve to be going back to school,” Strain said.
Marshall thought there were some short-term actions the district could have taken to make the original plan work, but she understood the challenges and credited district staff for working hard through unique circumstances.
She believes many parents, including those in her district, would opt to drive their children to school as opposed to letting them ride the bus.
Families will receive a survey beginning Nov. 16 asking if students will attend in-person learning for the second semester. The survey will also ask about the need for morning or afternoon bus transportation.
Adam Johnson, transportation administrator, said CMS considered a number of strategies to get students in school sooner, such as adding another bell tier and consolidating stops, but each solution came with trade-offs, such as substantial delays.
Such delays would impact the instructional day and decrease the time buses could be refueled and maintained, he said.