LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools is taking steps to lighten the loads of district bus drivers and incentivize more to get behind the wheel.

Kentucky’s largest school district, like others across the state, is dealing with a shortage of full- and part-time bus drivers early in the 2021-22 school year.

Records obtained by WDRB News show that JCPS had 771 drivers on staff as of last week, down from 940 in the 2019-20 school year and 954 in 2018-19. The district indicated in response to an open records request that 441 buses are handling more than one run.

During a Jefferson County Board of Education meeting Tuesday, the district reported having 766 bus drivers on staff with another 17 new hires ready to handle runs by Sept. 17. No buses transport more than the district’s 66-student capacity, with 369 transporting between 44 and 55 students and 213 driving between 55 and 66 students, according to the district’s presentation.

While JCPS has not canceled bus routes like other districts, some runs have been delayed this school year.

JCPS is contracting with Miller Transportation to handle 12 routes in response to the district’s bus driver shortage, and the school board voted to boost hourly pay for certified teachers and classified staff who drive buses, a pay bump already available to the district’s bus drivers.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said after Tuesday’s board meeting that those steps and the new hires starting soon may help fill the equivalent of as many as 50 driver vacancies.

“That will make a big difference,” he told WDRB News.

Bus drivers are just one staffing area where JCPS and other school districts are struggling so far this school year, the third affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as the more infectious delta variant drives up caseloads and hospitalizations across Kentucky and other states.

“Nationally, statewide and locally, hiring in schools is at a crisis point,” Pollio said. As an example, he said JCPS has about 150 fewer eligible substitute teachers taking classroom assignments this school year compared to prior years.

“It was already at a difficult point prior to COVID, but COVID has definitely exacerbated the problem,” he said of staffing at the district.

Board member Linda Duncan, who represents District 5, said school leaders in her district have consistently shared their concerns about staffing and covering classes.

“I feel that urgency from my circles, but I'm not feeling it here,” she said. “That is something that we need to be very clear with our legislators about. This is something that we have to have is this flexibility with (nontraditional instruction) or with hybrid or whatever.”

After lawmakers allowed school districts to provide a mix of in-person and virtual instruction during the closing months of the 2020-21 school year in which many of them frequently utilized remote learning, the total number of nontraditional days available for districts reverted to the statutory limit of 10.

Gov. Andy Beshear is expected to call lawmakers back to Frankfort for a special session on COVID-19 mitigation efforts after the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that laws limiting his executive authority during emergencies should go into effect while his lawsuit against them proceeds.

Pollio told board members Tuesday that the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents is developing priorities for lawmakers to consider in anticipation of a special legislative session, such as increased flexibility with remote learning days and reusing previous attendance numbers to determine state funding for school districts.

Pollio said he believes most lawmakers understand the “crisis point” that school districts are in.

“We’re still open, but the 23 districts that have closed have closed primarily because of lack of staffing, and those are rural districts that many of these legislators are representing,” he said after Tuesday’s meeting. “… The difficulty is the answer. What’s the answer to that? But I think they definitely know that right now it is a struggle on a daily basis to keep schools open in the commonwealth.”

The JCPS board also voted to grant employees 10 leave days if they or their children test positive for COVID-19. The new COVID-19 leave provision is retroactive to July 1 for the 2021-22 school year, and additional leave days will be available if they exhaust their initial allotment of 10 days and they or their children require hospitalization or care for COVID-19 infection.

Leave days are already available through an emergency regulation passed by the Kentucky Board of Education for staff who are vaccinated or have medical or religious exemptions and need to quarantine after COVID-19 exposure.

As of early Monday, JCPS reported 69 employees who tested positive for COVID-19 and 58 currently in quarantine after exposure.

JCPS does not know how many of its employees have received COVID-19 vaccinations. Pollio said most registered for Louisville Metro’s vaccination clinic at Broadbent Arena, and board member Chris Kolb, who represents District 2, said he would make a motion at the next board meeting to require JCPS employees to get vaccinated if such a policy is not in place before then.

The numbers of students who have tested positive or in quarantine are far higher with 559 cases cases and 2,414 active quarantines among the district’s students. About 96,000 students are enrolled in JCPS.

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