In his fourth week of driver’s training, Burke resident Tesfaye Debalke timidly steers toward the ramp to get on the Capital Beltway’s outer loop.
“Now, you’re going to want to speed up a bit if you’re going to merge in,” said driving instructor Sandra Weller, who is seated a few feet away. Debalke checks his left mirror, right mirror and rearview mirror and then checks again before accelerating the 37-foot-long, 8-foot-wide school bus into the vein of traffic.
Once on the interstate, he stays in the right lane, maintaining distance between the concrete barricade on his right and a fast-moving wide-load truck on his left.
Navigating the Beltway is stressful, said fellow bus driver trainee Kim Seo, a Vienna resident who sits a few seats back from where Debalke is driving.
This is why there is training, Seo said. “If I follow the instructor, I become confident and then I don’t worry so much.”
When summer ends, more than 1,000 Fairfax County Public Schools bus drivers will maneuver their 15-ton vehicles through traffic each morning, transporting the county’s youth to and from school.
“In your mind, just think about how difficult it is in your car [to get through traffic]. Then think about doing it in this big thing,” Weller said. “During training, we take them on city roads, back roads, dirt roads, country roads, the interstate — all kinds of roads because they need to know how to make turns on everything out there.”
The county school system runs one of the largest fleets of buses in the U.S., said Tim Parker, assistant director of Transportation Services.
“We need about a 1,000-plus drivers on the road each day,” he said. Additionally, the school system needs about 100 drivers on standby in case scheduled drivers call in sick or cannot complete their routes because of issues such as bus breakdowns, Parker said.
“We’ve had as many as 1,100 [buses] on the road … this year we may see that rise” with enrollment, he said.
While as many as 3,000 apply to be bus drivers each year, the school system remains in constant need of drivers, Parker said.
“We want someone with a good driving record. Someone with five or more tickets within the last few years wouldn’t be good for us,” he said. “The driving record alone takes a lot of people out [of the application process].”
He added that it would be hard to explain to a parent why a child was injured in a bus wreck when the driver had a record of reckless driving, which is why drivers with those infractions are not hired.
School bus drivers in Fairfax County are required to be at least 21, pass a drug screening and physical test — which includes an eye exam — and undergo a criminal background check. Drivers are paid between $16.91 and $17.07 an hour.
They train for about five weeks, which amounts to 200 hours divided between classroom instruction and behind-the-wheel training. Drivers are instructed at a Fairfax County Public Schools facility in Springfield.
Drivers are also trained in CPR and first aid, learn how to parallel park, drive through an orange-cone course, apply metal chains to tires during snowy weather and more. The training is very similar to what commercial drivers learn, Parker said.
“We guarantee drivers 25 hours [of work] a week, but our average is 39.999… not quite 40,” Parker said. “We have a continual need for drivers. We stood at 30 or 40 drivers short last year, but that was good compared to prior years where we were 60 or more short. The economy has helped us a lot. People are looking for work.”
Bus driving, a part-time job, draws candidates from across the career spectrum, said Transportation Training Supervisor Lisa Greenwalt, adding that many have retired from other careers.
“It’s a perfect job for them because they are not working the full day. They’ve retired but they can keep active,” she said. “It’s also good for Realtors, who have the middle of the day open; for [Northern Virginia Community College] kids looking to pay for school.”
Many drivers are mothers of students in the school system, Greenwalt said, adding that she herself became a driver because she wanted to be able to take her not-yet-school-aged daughter to work with her.
“I said I was only going to do this until my daughter was in kindergarten, and now my daughter’s 32 and I’m still here,” she said.
Fairfax County has employed retired U.S. military colonels, lawyers, pilots, teachers and more as bus drivers.
“We’ve had a federal intelligence officer who came here and said, ‘This was just too much pressure. I don’t want to do this,’” Greenwalt said.
The pressure is not from the difficulty of driving a bus, but rather the responsibility of carefully transporting the county’s children to and from school each day, Parker and other staff said.
Although the hours vary with school start times, bus drivers usually work from 6 to 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Bus drivers are also needed during the evenings when student athletes have games or when field trips are scheduled, transportation staff said.
Debalke, who previously worked for his family business, said the main reason he is training to become a bus driver is the benefits.
“They have great benefits. Health and dental,” he said. Driving a bus, Debalke said, is “not like a small car. When you look at this big bus on the outside, you think it’s easy. But when you’re sitting in it you [realize] it’s a big bus.”
Seo, who is also training this summer along with about 40 other drivers, previously worked as a bus attendant, helping disabled children on the school system’s buses for special needs students.
“I wanted to promote myself. It’s good pay, better than an attendant. I like the kids,” she said. “I saw them improve and I like seeing them grow up. … I will be [driving] in the same area where I worked. So I’ll get to see those same kids.”
Seo said that on the first day of school she will be just as nervous and excited as the returning students. During the last two weeks of training, new bus drivers train with children riding along, while accompanied by an instructor. Having “live cargo,” as the staff call it, helps new drivers get used to driving with as many as 78 elementary school students on board.
“We’re looking for someone responsible to handle the kids,” said Parker, who spent the beginning of his 25 years with the county behind the wheel of a school bus. “When I drove [in high school and college], you trained for a few days and then went to the DMV and got licensed.” He said the training now is much more rigorous.
“I liked being out and about. You have a lot more freedom out there,” Parker said, adding, “It’s the best seat. You’re up high and can really see.”