School bus drivers, masks key topics at school board meeting

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An effort to hire more bus drivers has begun to pay off, according to Chesterfield County Public School officials.

As a result of recently increasing the hourly pay for drivers to $20.21 an hour, the school system has over 350 new applicants.

During the board’s Sept. 14 afternoon work session, transportation director James C. Frye said the pay rate was increased to $14.84 in September 2019 and then raised to $15.59 in December 2019. This year, it was increased to $17.21 in August and again in September. 

“We’re very excited about the increase in driver pay,” Frye said. “Chesterfield County has done a very good job of increasing pay incrementally.”

He said the school system had 525 drivers in Fiscal Year 2016 and 485 are needed this fiscal year. “We’re being asked to do more, but we have less,” he said, referring to the number of drivers. He noted that the school system changed school start times since 2016 and has 2,000 more students. 

“I can honestly say I see the light with the generous bonuses and pay rates,” he said. “The future looks good.”

Bonuses are $3,000 for an applicant who obtains or has a commercial driver’s license, which the district said it would pay incrementally through the school year, according to reports. 

Frye said applicants have to pass a physical, drug screening and background check. As a result of the bus driver shortage, he said district staff began implementing the screenings at the beginning of the hiring process instead of later. “That’s going to help a lot,” Frye said. 

However, during public comment at the board’s evening session, Christine Melendez, president of the Chesterfield Education Association, said transportation employees had concerns about the death of a woman driver because the district didn’t recognize her death. 

According to reports, Dawn Marie Harris, 54, who had driven for the district for 19 years, died from complications related to Covid-19. 

In addition, Melendez said a man who drove a school bus was reprimanded for not reviewing school bus video fast enough and was not given the needed support to improve. Consequently, the man left and went to work for a neighboring county, she said. 

Melendez said drivers are now being paid $22,000 a year if they work 30 hours a week and 183 days a year. That’s not enough, she said. 

Masks causing a teacher shortage?

Amy Dodson, who said she has two students at James River High School, said the district has a teacher shortage. 

Dodson said that Superintendent Merv Daugherty said the school system can’t grow teachers. However, Dodson added, “You can change your overreach into the classroom and keep politics and ideology out of schools. Teachers are dangerously and detrimentally micromanaged.”

Teachers are afraid to speak up due to fear of retribution from colleagues or administrators, she said. 

Dodson attributed the teacher shortage in part due to masks that offer low protection from Covid-19. 

“There are very few masks with a high Covid protection efficacy rate,” she said, noting that the federal Centers for Disease Control revoked a recommendation for the K-95 mask, “but they’re still sold.” The K-95 mask has an effective rate as low as 5 percent, she said. 

“I bought one of the top-selling masks with a 5-star rating on Amazon,” she said, adding that it had a disclaimer that said it doesn’t prevent virus or disease transmission. Masks sold at Costco, Walmart and “the one that’s being handed out in the hallway” are also ineffective, she said.

“All of these things negate achieving the goal for which they were mandated,” she said of the requirement for students and school staff to wear masks indoors and on buses. 

Christopher Walker said students are depressed and “scared to death of Covid.” 

Walker said he doesn’t want to hear about case rates, but rather the hospitalization rate, for example. Over 90 percent of those who have Covid-19 are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms, he said. 

At the conclusion of public comment, Daugherty thanked the public speakers and said, “I’m taking a lot of notes.” 

“We have no idea when it’s going away,” he said of Covid-19. 

In his report, Daugherty said the district hired 14 foreign language interpreters at schools with student populations that are least 30 percent Hispanic. 

He said the district added 1,477 students since the end of the last school year. As of Sept. 13, the district had 62,221 students. 

 

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