Central Texas superintendent gets behind the wheel in response to school bus driver shortage

Valley Mills ISD has two bus driver’s out related to COVID-19
Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 1:07 AM CDT
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VALLEY MILLS, Texas (KWTX) - The nationwide crisis over a lack of school bus drivers is becoming painfully present in Central Texas.

The leader of a small local district is pulling out all the stops...by making all the stops.

“We have two drivers out because of COVID-related issues,” said Chris Dowdy, Superintendent of the Valley Mills Independent School District. “I guess I was next on-deck.”

In addition to having the two bus driver’s out, the district’s ‘sub’ driver is also out-of-town, which left Valley Mills ISD scrambling.

“We have coaches who are certified but they’re in the middle of football practice, volleyball practice, so it’s just kind of one of those ‘all hands on deck’ approaches,” Dowdy told KWTX Wednesday.

And by ‘all hands’...he means his...on a wheel.

”We leave about 6:25 in the morning, get back in about 7, 7:30,” said Dowdy.

With a shortage of drivers to take students to and from school, Dowdy, the top educator in VMISD, has stepped up to the plate by taking between 35-40 kids to and from school each day.

“Definitely with small, rural schools, it’s difficult to find people that A: have certification, and B: have the time to maybe drive two hours in the morning take a four-to-five hour break and come back in the afternoon and drive two or three hours again,” said Dowdy. “Anybody that was capable, they would hop in and do the same thing.”

Dowdy has been receiving praise for helping fill the gap, however, he wants to turn the attention to his staff.

“It’s a tough situation right now, but our people are working so hard right now, they deserve the credit, not me,” he said. “It was difficult last year and it turned out to be difficult again, so I have a huge appreciation for all those in education right now.”

Dowdy will be behind the wheel for at least another two weeks.

He says he’s enjoying the change of pace.

“It’s not bad, it’s actually fun to reconnect with some of those kids,” said Dowdy who until this year was the Principal of Valley Mills Elementary School. “My worst fear driving a bus is not knowing where to go, or forgetting a kid, or forgetting a stop or something like that, so I have Mr. Jones with me, he’s kind of my Rand McNally back there telling me to turn here, turn there.”

He says it’s been fun to see the people’s response when the bus doors open.

“They’ve been surprised,” said Dowdy.

A surprise to them, but not to himself, as Dowdy says he’d do just about anything to get kids back in the classroom.

“We’re trying to provide our kids as much normalcy as possible this school year,” said Dowdy. “We want those kids here, that’s when they’re going to be most successful.”

According to the National School Transportation Association, bus drivers are in “critically” shorter supply because COVID-19: they’re either scared of contracting the virus from students, hesitant about taking the vaccine, or currently out sick with coronavirus.

“As school districts across the country return to in-person learning and COVID continues to have an impact on education in general and school transportation scheduling and logistics in particular, the shortage of school bus drivers has become conspicuous”, National Association for Pupil Transportation Executive Director Mike Martin said in a press release.

In a recent national survey co-sponsored by NAPT and NSTA, 51% of responding school district’s described their driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate”.

Dowdy is hoping theirs will be short-lived and they’ll be back to normal in about two weeks when the last of their two regular drivers returns.

However, they’re always looking for more help in transportation, he says.

“We always have openings for bus drivers,” said Dowdy.

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