By Emma Duncan--Eagle Editor
Picture this. It’s Monday morning, and kids are sluggishly making their way to the bus stop, dreading the day ahead. However, as the bus doors swing open, a mechanic greets the middle and high schoolers who would soon be late to their first period math class, which was staffed by an English teacher and science teacher who split the period. Then, pizza is served by an administrator instead of the expected cafeteria worker, all before these students are brought home by a secretary.
This is the reality for schools everywhere, not just in Franklin County, causing many families to wonder about staffing in schools.
“There is a shortage of [bus] drivers for most school districts across the country,” Supervisor of Transportation Cherie Whitlow addressed. “COVID has some to do with the shortage, but there are other factors that also play a role in the shortage.”
Out of all the factors making it difficult to find new bus drivers and substitute drivers, two things especially stand out. First, pay for a bus driver is quite low, as the entry rate is about $53 per day. Based on seniority, miles driven, and hours on the road, this can go up to about $85 per day. Subs have a similar starting rate as regular drivers, but their salary caps at $58. However, these already low rates are only available to those who “work at least 75 percent of the contractual year,” according to a recent salary scale.
Additionally, anyone who rides or drives a bus understands that it can be a difficult job, as some students have tendencies to disobey rules, crowd the rearview mirror, and create a highly distracting environment.
It has also proven difficult to find people with suitable qualifications to handle this kind of job. Therefore, everyone at the transportation office is pulling extra duty to keep bus wheels rolling round and round.
"[There are] 140 school bus drivers, 2 substitute drivers, 3 teachers that drive a route or help out when they can, 1 secretary that will sub when she can, 6 office staff, [and] 7 mechanics,” Whitlow listed. “Each day we use every driver, the two substitutes, mechanics and the office staff to get students to and from school. The child’s pick up and drop off time will be delayed, but our department will get the child home.”
In spite of this teamwork, there have still been days where no more drivers are available, causing some students to arrive at school thirty minutes to an hour late. Jon Crutchfield, FCHS principal, assured that any high school student who arrives late due to busing will be excused. Administration continues to hope that additional staff will come on board and resolve the issue.
“We apologize for any inconvenience this causes,” Whitlow expressed. “We ask that the community please be patient with us during this time. If anyone would like to be trained to drive a school bus, please contact us at 540-483-5541. We do offer training.”
Applicants are also needed in the classroom, because although there are over 200 teachers on the high school campus, the number of available subs has plummeted for reasons similar to those seen at the transportation office.
“COVID hasn't helped our situation, but that isn't the only reason for the shortages. People are hiring all over right now, and it's hard for the school division to keep up with competitive pay rates,” School Board Chairperson Julie Nix explained. “What is frustrating for us is that we can't just raise salaries, as we are dependent on outside sources for funding (state and local agencies).”
Nix’s frustration can especially be seen when salary scales from surrounding counties are compared to Franklin County’s. First year teachers in Franklin County are paid $10,000 less than those in Roanoke City, $5,000 less than those in Henry County, and about $2,000 less than those in Roanoke, Floyd, and Patrick Counties. The problem isn’t that FCPS has decreased pay but that other divisions have increased theirs. In turn, some teachers have left FCPS to teach in those higher paying counties.
The situation is the same for substitutes who can make more money in Roanoke City, for example. Furthermore, since subs are often retirees, their risk of contracting COVID-19 by coming to campus is elevated. Therefore, administration is often forced to turn to those already in the building for help.
“When teachers are out sick and we don’t have substitutes, then we have other teachers cover those classes during their planning period,” Crutchfield elaborated. “Our teachers are awesome! It’s because they love to teach these kids so they’re willing to help out their colleagues. It stinks [that] they don’t have a full planning period, but we usually don’t make them do the whole 85 minutes and instead split it in half. We are able to pay teachers $30 an hour extra; so if they cover half a class they’ll get a good portion of that. It’s a small token of our appreciation, but it’s definitely not all that they deserve. We have many, many teachers that went days and days without a planning period. It’s really a problem.”
Even staff's family members and friends have stepped in to help cover classes and relieve the pressure overstretched teachers face.
“My daughter who’s a college student is even on our sub list and she likes it,” Crutchfield said. “She did a long term sub last May [and] she actually subbed for a math teacher for around the last three weeks of school. We need more college kids like her who are home on breaks to help sub here or there."
FCPS and Ferrum College recently partnered to mitigate the sub shortage through an agreement that allows Ferrum students to serve as substitutes during their school day.
However, not all Panthers are allowed to sub. Eligible students are handpicked by Ferrum College, have to be at least 20 years old (although other subs have to be 21+), and will need to complete a background check before being considered by the school board.
Those accepted will earn $85 for a full day of teaching and $42.50 for a half day. Training and job shadowing are available as well as transportation and even free lunch for the first month, according to an article by Aila Boyd in The Franklin News-Post.
For the most part, teachers seem to be supportive of this decision.
“Personally, I found this to be a smart decision,” history teacher Prentice Sargeant commented. “I think this will have a powerful impact for Ferrum students- when learning to be a teacher, there is a radical difference between discussing the goings-on in the classroom and actually experiencing them, so I think this practical application will be beneficial for them.”
Even so, increasing the number of subs seems only a temporary solution to a larger issue of staff shortages at every level throughout the division.
“Admittedly, it's not the same as having a content teacher that can answer any questions the students might have,” Sergeant added. “My class is lecture heavy and I do not want to expect that any sub is automatically able to lecture knowledgeably on any historical subject or answer questions students have.”
Interested subs have to complete an application with the division, pass a background check, and then take part in a short training with the Human Resources department. After that though, there are several benefits from subbing, both personally and communally.
“The partnership between the school system and our community is vital to the growth of Franklin County's future,” Amy Johnson, high school administrator, encouraged. “There is no better way to help shape and grow our community than to spend time supporting and understanding the values and expectations that the schools have for our students. No one fully understands the workings of a school or school system unless you are part of it.”