Fairfax County Public School students get onto a bus (via FCPS)

Over a month into the current school year, Fairfax County Public Schools is grappling with two key issues: how to recruit and retain staff, especially in special education and transportation, and how to feed students.

FCPS officials have said shortages in those areas are affecting the rest of the country, while supply chain issues have resulted in more students getting fewer choices to pick from in school cafeterias, thanks in part to free meals becoming available to all students.

When it comes to staff retention, the Fairfax County School Board approved some immediate relief at its regular meeting on Thursday (Sept. 23), increasing seasoned bus drivers’ salaries by 2.5%. The change will show up in their paychecks starting Oct. 23.

The change excludes new bus drivers who got a pay boost in August when the board voted to increase starting hourly rates from $19.58 to $22.91.

“Attract is one thing, but retain is something altogether different,” Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen said.

In consultation with stakeholders, FCPS is conducting an in-depth market compensation study that it plans to finish by the end of the school year. The need to retain experienced bus drivers will only grow in urgency, as 25% will become eligible to retire.

FCPS also offers a $3,000 signing bonus, and Superintendent Scott Brabrand said the changes have boosted applications from about five to seven per week to an additional 20-50 each week.

Meanwhile, as of Sept. 15, FCPS had 133 teaching vacancies, nearly half of them in special education, according to Karen Corbett-Sanders, the school board’s Mount Vernon District representative.

Brabrand has suggested that state requirements for special education teachers need to be adjusted to ease the process for existing teachers, saying Thursday that he plans to bring the school board more information later to help its advocacy efforts.

School systems nationwide have reported bus driver deficits as potential hires turn to higher-paying commercial jobs, among other factors.

However, the commercial driving sector is experiencing labor shortages of its own, which are colliding with supply chain disruptions and increased student demand to create problems in school cafeterias.

In its annual “Opening of Schools” report, FCPS says it is now serving some 138,000 students per day — about 28,000 more than before the pandemic. Brabrand reported on Thursday that the school system distributed a record number of meals the previous week, when 150,000 students used its food services.

Mason District School Board Representative Ricardy Anderson noted that families have raised concerns and wondered about the quality of the food. Department of Financial Services Assistant Superintendent Leigh Burden said the issues have affected the number of the options available to students, but not the quality.

“We’ve had to double down on some of our oldies but goodies like pizza, which maybe doesn’t make students upset, but we want to continue to fully implement the food and nutrition health guidelines,” Brabrand said.

Anderson said knowing about the supply chain issues could help families better understand the situation that FCPS is facing.

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