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Pulaski County school bus driver shares point of view as district’s driver shortage continues

New River Valley News

PULASKI COUNTY, Va. (WFXR) — A school bus driver shortage continues to impact school districts across the country and across the Commonwealth, including Pulaski County.

In past weeks, Pulaski County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers reported a number of transportation issues — such as students getting home as late as 6:30 p.m., not knowing what their house looked like, and even getting on the wrong bus — at the start of the school year.

Pulaski County school bus driver, Andy “Kool-Aid” Thorton, has been driving bus 86 for nearly two decades.

Thorton grew up in Pulaski County and even collected school buses when he was young. In 2002, he graduated from Pulaski High School, where he became a driver.

“When I drive around, every bus driver waves at you. We are a family, and I would love to extend that family and get more help,” said Thorton.

Even with his love for the job, Thorton admits that it can be challenging at times.

“I would’ve thought that this job would have had benefits…but it doesn’t. So here I am on a bus with kids that may not wash their hands as good, may not wear their masks all the time,” said Thorton.

According to Thorton, getting sick would be the worst-case scenario.

“I have to go to the doctor, I have to pay cash for everything, I have no insurance through here,” said Thorton.

He also says that none of the buses have air conditioning, making it unbearably hot.

In addition, the coronavirus pandemic poses a threat to many potential drivers. Thorton says everyday drivers are around 40 to 50 kids who mingle with other kids daily, causing drivers to be fearful of contracting the virus.

According to Thorton, it’s time for much-needed help.

Meanwhile, Siers issued a transportation update on Friday, Sept. 3 saying that the Pulaski County Public Schools transportation department has managed to maintain regular runs for the first 12 days of school, with afternoon routes now concluding by 5 p.m.

However, the superintendent did outline a few issues that continue to impact the district’s ability to operate efficiently:

Bus driver shortage & on-going turnover– We have lost a few more drivers during the first weeks of the school year. While we are currently able to complete all regular runs and are committed to doing so for as long as possible, we are almost at the point of needing to return to the modified runs from last year. PCPS will provide as much notice as possible before changing our procedures but advise parents to begin planning for modifications in bus pick-up and drop off locations. Our transportation office is reviewing the modified routes that were used last year to determine if adjustments will be made and a copy of these routes will be made available next week.     

Student Discipline Issues– The incidents of defiance and disrespect toward bus drivers this year seem to be higher than in years past. We typically work with students and their families to help correct this type of behavior and attempt to repair relationships after incidents occur. However, given the conditions under which we are now operating, we have no choice but to reduce the tolerance shown and modify the interventions used for these types of behaviors and will begin implementing long term suspensions and expulsions from our buses for students whose behavior distracts drivers or causes disruptions to our bus routes. It is important to note that bus transportation is not a right for every student but a privilege that requires a degree of respect for those who provide this valuable service. (Reference- VA Code §22.1-176 which states “School boards may provide for the transportation of pupils, but nothing herein contained shall be construed as requiring such transportation…”)

Dr. Kevin Siers, Superintendent of Pulaski County Public Schools

Pulaski County Public Schools plans to offer free driver training on Saturday, Sept. 11; Saturday, Sept. 18; and Saturday, Sept. 25.

If you are interested in becoming a licensed bus driver — even as a substitute — to help transport students on regular runs, field trips, or extracurricular activities, you are asked to contact Vickie Jarrells at 540-643-0815. 

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