Delaware school districts work to address bus driver shortage

Fairfax County Public School buses are lined up at a maintenance facility

School buses are lined up at a maintenance facility. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

School districts in Delaware appear to be better managing the nationwide school bus driver shortage that plagued many schools last year. But it’s taken a lot of work for districts in the rapidly growing New Castle County area to make sure students have reliable rides to and from school.

The Appoquinimink School District and Red Clay Consolidated School Districts were among the districts forced to change their transportation strategies in order to improve travel times and prevent students from arriving and departing from school earlier or later than necessary.

One of the solutions districts implemented last year was “double-backing,” in which buses would make their first run of students and then return back to the neighborhoods to collect a second round.

“I know that when people take off for various reasons that some of us have to double up and do extra runs in order to make the day go smooth,” said Dorothy Ray, a school bus driver from Red Clay.

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Even pre-pandemic, driver shortages have been an issue, though COVID added another set of barriers.

“Our district, specifically, for years we were lucky that we had the retirement age population that would come and drive a bus for us,” said Tom Poehlmann, director of safety, security, and operations for Appoquinimink. “But then during COVID, because of the fears of getting sick, they dropped off. So that really exacerbated the problem for our Appoquinimink… and what caused us to be in somewhat of a crisis over the last couple of years.”

Traditionally, schools in New Castle County used outside contractors like First Student Transportation, Advanced Transportation, and other smaller businesses to run the buses instead of running their own district buses.

While Christina, Red Clay, and Colonial school districts appear to be thriving with a combination of both, Brandywine School District operates its own buses.

This year, Appoquinimink launched its own bus program after seeing other districts have success. “This was a long process with our board and making some decisions on how many buses we want to operate and how many buses will our contractors operate,” Poelmann said.

Better pensions and benefits for bus drivers could help schools recruit more drivers. Earlier this year, the state lawmakers increased the formula districts use to pay bus contractors.

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Stacey Mcintosh, the transportation supervisor for Appoquinimink said the student population is increasing at an accelerating rate, going up 200 to 500 students enrolled every few years. Poelmann says that Middletown-Odessa-Townsend area is growing at a high rate.

In order to address the bus crisis, Appoquinimink contracted a consultant to assess their bus routes and improve efficiency. As a result, they went from operating 120 buses to 110 buses with full capacity.

Like many other schools, Appoquinimink uses the three-tier bell system. Elementary, middle, and high schools all have distinct start times. District officials say the varying start times will result in better efficiency, despite the potential inconvenience for parents of children in various grade levels.

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