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More Charlottesville students walk to school amid bus driver shortage

A stop for pedestrians sign sits in the middle of the road.
Research has found students who walk to school have better concentration in class — not to mention fewer physical and mental health issues. (Photos: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Cities in Virginia, as well as localities across the country, are grappling with a severe bus driver shortage. 

Charlottesville City Schools is trying something called “walking school buses” to get more kids to school safely without a physical bus. Walking school buses usually include two teachers: one at the front and one at the back. But for some smaller groups of students, there’s only one teacher on the walking bus.  

On the first day of school, preschool teacher Michel Ann Sizemore walks into one of the five courtyards in Friendship Court, a federally subsidized housing community near downtown Charlottesville. She’s wearing a bright yellow safety vest and carrying a clipboard to mark off the names of students on her walking bus.

“OK, my blue bus friends … are we ready?” she asked.

Sizemore puts stickers on the hands of three little kids to indicate they’re on the blue bus, holds up a clear umbrella and they set out — single-file — on the three-quarter mile walk to school.

She holds the hand of the youngest student in the group, a four-year-old.

Two other students who missed the walking bus run to catch up with the group as they turn a corner, trudging up a small hill toward a crossing guard.

Six-year-old Julian Mickey is very excited about his backpack, and there’s plenty along the way to keep him and others entertained on the walk to school — including a high five from a construction worker, plastic flamingos in someone’s yard and spiderwebs in the shrubbery.

Mickey is among hundreds of Charlottesville students from preschool through high school who no longer have bus service this year. According to the district, only about 900 of the city’s roughly 4,500 students currently have a seat on the bus. The city is in the process of onboarding several additional bus drivers, but even after they begin routes, not all students will have access to the bus.

Masked adults have a discussion indoors
District leaders, including Charlottesville Superintendent Royal Gurley, spoke with Friendship Court residents during a community meeting, assuring them kids would have access to things like ponchos in case of rain for the walk to school.

More students expected to walk to school this year

District leaders told VPM News that at the beginning of last fall, the district had about 22 bus drivers. Even then, there was a waiting list for bus service. But when Charlottesville found itself with just a handful of drivers this past summer, school officials like Kim Powell, chief operations officer for Charlottesville City Schools, knew they had to do something differently.

“The resuming of in-person instruction after the pandemic … that's when things really shifted here,” Powell said. “We basically reverted back to the number of drivers we had at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, which was early in the pandemic.”

She’d floated expanded walking zones early in the pandemic, but at that time she was still focused on recruiting and retaining drivers. Then came this last wave of resignations and retirements.

“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,” Powell said.

In June, the district formally decided to expand the district’s walking zones: elementary students who live within .75 miles of their school are now expected to walk or find another way to get to school. Same goes for 5th graders through high schoolers who live 1.25 miles from school or less.

The expanded distances still put the district below average when it comes to distances other school systems ask kids to walk; a lot of states require students to live one or two miles away to qualify for bus service.  

The district implemented walking school buses to help students living in these expanded walking zones get to school safely. Right now, there are 7 of them: Five serving Friendship Court elementary students walking to Clark Elementary; one serving Friendship Court middle school students walking to Buford Middle School; and one serving Westhaven elementary students walking to Venable Elementary.

“We've walked lot of these routes. And for some of the routes that we relied on the computer to kind of chart the route for us … once we did some walking, we made some modifications and said, ‘No, let's turn this corner before we get to this corner, so that we can make it a little safer for our students,’” said Royal Gurley, superintendent for the district.

Gurley said the expanded walking zones are here to stay, though he says that doesn’t mean the district has ruled out other strategies, like paying parents stipends for taking their kids to school as some districts in other states are doing.

“This is the future,” Gurley said. “It is about solving our own problems. And I think that we have created something that we will be able to sustain, and it will have lasting benefits for our city.”

The school district turns to the community for help

District officials also asked for community members to help chart the safest routes for kids to walk, flagging unsafe intersections and suggesting alternative routes on quieter streets or trails. 

Community members also recommended improvements needed to make the streets safer for walking. Some dangerous intersections stand out as particularly concerning to residents like Carmelita Wood, president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association. One is 5th Street and Cherry Avenue.

Middle school students who live in and around Friendship Court have to cross this intersection — and several other busy ones — to get to school on the route charted by district officials. The route to Clark Elementary, the closest elementary school, is much quieter. Most of the route winds along a tree-lined residential street.

“Safety is an issue as far as going along Cherry Avenue,” Wood said. “Speeding traffic, kids riding bicycles and even crossing the street. Parents have expressed concerns about children feeling unsafe walking to school, even just walking along Cherry Avenue.”

Before the school year started, Wood met with other community members in Tonsler Park, right at that intersection, to talk about improvements to a trail that cuts through the back of the park. They hope students can utilize the trail as an alternative to the busy 5th Street. They’re planning an official ribbon-cutting for the trail in early October.

Anthony Woodard, CEO of Woodard Properties, owns the 21 acres of land the trail is on. He told VPM News that while the land might someday be developed, right now, “there's no better use than to allow the community to use it [to] safely travel to and from work, school, home,” Woodard said.

Still, not all students who are in the walking zones will walk to school. Matthew Gillikin is co-chairperson of Livable Charlottesville, a group that advocates for housing and transportation safety policies. He also has three kids in Charlottesville City Schools and has been helping parents and students figure out how to utilize the city bus service amid the school bus driver shortage.    

He plans to have his middle schooler take the city bus — which stops right across from his job at the UVA hospital.

“He's excited about doing this. It sounds like there's at least a few other families that are going to do it,” Gillikin said. “I think we're going to have some chaperoning together the first few weeks, and then hopefully, the kids will be independent with it before too long.”

Livable Charlottesville, along with other groups, has asked the city to invest at least $1 million to make the city’s streets safer for walking. Some of those projects are already underway.

“I’m hopeful that some of these changes will become permanent and will make walking and biking and riding the city bus more feasible in the future for more families,” Gillikin said. “We have to make some choices around if we're going to prioritize fast-car travel or safety for pedestrians and cyclists. And we've chosen fast car travel pretty much every time for about 50 years.”  

Children, accompanied by an adult, cross the street.
Amid a driver shortage, students in Charlottesville recently traveled in a “walking school bus” on the way to class. (Photo: Megan Pauly/VPM News)

Parents have mixed feelings about walking school busses 

On the first day of school, there were officially 26 Clark Elementary students on the walking school bus roster, including 24 students from Friendship Court. School officials anticipate that number to grow as they work to make sure all parents know the walking school buses are an option for their kids.

Friendship Court resident Shaquille Stinnie was initially planning to walk with her five-year-old to school and then catch a bus to work, since she doesn’t have a car. But after hearing the district’s presentation at a community meeting, she said she felt OK having her daughter walk the roughly three-quarters of a mile to school with teachers.  

“I didn’t think that they were going to have enough people to cover all of the kids because there’s so many kids. With them coming to the courtyards it’s easier, it’s comfortable, it’s smaller groups,” Stinnie said.

There are a total of 111 children in Friendship Court who attend Clark Elementary, according to the district. For those parents who decided to drive their kids during the first week of school, reasons varied widely.

Sheri Hopper said she felt her elementary-school son was safe walking with teachers to school, but he just didn’t want to walk one day, so she decided to drive him. Other parents like Tianna Graves drove their Clark students because they were already driving older siblings to school, too. Graves has a five-year-old and 10-year-old twins.

“I think it’s great that they’re taking their time to walk the kids to school, but I feel like they should be doing something a little more to help the ones that go further away,” Graves said.

Mocita Thomas said she doesn’t feel comfortable having her five- and nine-year-old kids walk to school, even with teachers.

“You never know how a kid’s mind works … . You’re trying to keep them in one straight line, and then they see something and run off,” Thomas said. “I don’t think it’s safe for my kids, but some parents are OK with it.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids not walk alone until they’re 10 years old, citing research of attention skills of 4- to 10-year-old children that found older children are better at switching focus to important pedestrian tasks. Phyllis Agran, a member of the AAP, said parents know best when their child is ready to walk safely to school.

“It's a good idea to start that educational process as a parent coach and walk with your child. And then you, as a parent, can observe, are they safe? Do they pay attention to the traffic? Or are they distracted and not ready to even walk alone, walk with an older sibling or another student?”

When students are ready to walk to school, the health benefits are immense. Research has found students who walk to school have better concentration in class — not to mention fewer physical and mental-health issues.

“Research is actually very clear that a sedentary lifestyle leads to an increased likelihood of chronic illness throughout a person's life. And by intervening at an early age, we're getting in front of that stuff,” said Peter Krebs, a community organizer with the Piedmont Environmental Council.