DeKalb schools says it will tackle bus drivers’ pay, COVID concerns

DeKalb County School Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris talks during an appreciation lunch for the transportation employees at the East DeKalb Campus on June 24, 2021. Last week, several bus drivers called in sick due to working conditions. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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DeKalb County School Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris talks during an appreciation lunch for the transportation employees at the East DeKalb Campus on June 24, 2021. Last week, several bus drivers called in sick due to working conditions. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

A few days after more than four dozen DeKalb County school bus drivers called in sick, Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris said the district is working to address their concerns about pay, COVID-19 safety measures and other working conditions.

A total of 56 bus drivers in Region 1 — which covers the Chamblee, Doraville and Dunwoody areas in northern DeKalb — did not come to work on Friday, upending schedules and transportation plans for hundreds of parents and students.

Plenty of questions remain about the situation, with some suggesting bus drivers staged a “sick out” and others shying away from the phrase.

Either way, the absences caught the attention of district leaders who, like their counterparts in other communities across the country, are already battling a significant driver shortage.

Watson-Harris said during a Monday afternoon school board meeting that she and her team met with bus drivers and transportation department managers throughout the weekend. She said she plans to meet with the district’s Driver and Monitor Advisory Committee, which was formed nearly 20 years ago to address concerns from bus drivers, later this week to continue working on their concerns.

“We are very grateful for all of our bus drivers,” Watson-Harris said.

ExploreMore than 30 DeKalb school bus drivers miss work, canceling routes

During a Sunday evening appearance at a meeting of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association, Antwyn Brown, Watson-Harris’ chief of staff, provided more specifics about what could be on the table.

Brown said that, thanks to contact tracing that followed a single COVID-19 diagnosis, the district had been prepared for 35 bus driver absences in Region 1 on Friday.

Then 21 additional bus drivers called out, too.

He said that in subsequent meetings, bus drivers express concerns about their pay, which lags the metro Atlanta average, and asked for “improved working conditions.” Those include more protective equipment in buses, better communication about students on their routes that have been diagnosed with COVID, and more back-up in enforcing the district’s on-bus masking policy.

“We’re gonna provide that to them, in addition to the financial incentives that they’ve requested,” Brown said. “But at the same time, we want [them] to come to work.”

That may not have happened at least one local school on Monday.

ExploreMetro Atlanta schools face bus driver shortage

While a statement from the district said there was “no major disruption” to the county’s Monday morning bus routes, the principal of Dunwoody’s Peachtree Middle School sent a message to parents announcing that children usually served by five separate routes would “require alternate transportation” due to “the driver shortage and absenteeism.”

It arrived shortly after 7 a.m., less than an hour before most of the school’s children are picked up for the day.

Isabel Acosta’s son rides one of the affected routes and, just like on Friday, had to find a ride with a neighbor.

Acosta, a single mother, said she’s lucky to live in a community where people go out of their way to help each other, but not everyone has that. And while she understands bus drivers’ desire to do whatever they feel is needed to protect themselves, she’s been frustrated by what she calls a lack of transparency and poor communication from the school district.

“It kind of feels like it’s, ‘Let’s wait and see who calls out sick tomorrow.’ Which is not feasible in the long run,” Acosta said.

ExploreCOVID-19 amplifies chronic shortage of substitute teachers

During Monday’s meeting, several school board members stressed the need to continue tackling the county’s shortage of drivers, which currently sits at 107 vacancies.

Watson-Harris said the county has arranged for “automated calls to recruit” potential drivers, visited three external job fairs and has put forth an incentive plan that would include $1,200 in stipends for new drivers who complete training and drive for at least 30 days.

School board member Joyce Morley, meanwhile, focused on the struggles of existing staff, relaying stories about students getting on and off of buses without a mask, flaunting the district’s mandate and putting drivers at risk.

The school district has recorded 2,523 COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year through last Thursday, .

“What’s being done to keep these bus drivers safe?” Morley asked.