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Parents Take the Wheel

More and more bus drivers are bringing their kids to work—and to school.

By John Rosales

Faith Petrey has grown up riding school buses. When she started as a five-month-old, she needed a car seat. As a toddler, she played with stuffed animals and enjoyed snacks during her 30-mile runs.

Now in first grade, Faith, like many students, is content to catch up on homework on the bus before arriving home. After seven years, she’s never missed a ride and has always had the same driver—her mother, Valerie Petrey.

When Faith was born, Petrey decided to leave her corporate job in human resources and apply for a bus driver position with Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia.

“The county needed drivers, and I wanted to spend more time with my kids,” says Petrey. So she got certified as a bus driver and was soon chauffeuring Faith and her three siblings to three different schools. Today, Faith is joined on the bus by Steven, 11, Rex, 12, and Veronica, 14.

“I never wanted them to be latchkey kids,” Petrey says. “This job allows me the opportunity to take them to school, pick them up, get them home, and get paid for it. There is so much flexibility.”   

"I don't know how I could ever go back to an office," says bus driver and parent Valerie Petrey, shown here with her children.

Photo: Sandy Schaeffer

Having enough bus drivers is a common concern for school systems across the country, especially when a robust economy offers potential drivers other full-time job alternatives.

“Historically, when the economy is good, you have bus driver shortages in most parts of the country,” says J. Michael Lunsford, Loudoun’s director of transportation. “We are all competing for the same workers.”

So Loudoun, like many districts, has increasingly turned to parents to operate the buses. About 70 percent of the district’s 613 drivers chauffeur at least one of their children. With no age limit for drivers’ children, infants requiring car seats are strapped into benches located directly behind the driver’s seat.

Allowing drivers to bring small children on board has helped alleviate Loudoun’s bus driver shortage, though the county still has about 50 unfilled positions. “If tomorrow they said we had to eliminate drivers’ children on board, we’d have to close the school system,” Lunsford says.

Drivers in Loudoun are paid a minimum of $15.90 an hour. Veterans can earn up to $29.60 hourly for a 20-hour week, 10 months a year. Petrey works about 185 days a year with full benefits. Her two-hour morning shift starts at about 7 a.m. She’s then on her own until about 2 p.m., when she drives for another two hours, shuttling more than 110 students from local elementary, middle, and high schools. The flexible hours and nature of the job have allowed Petrey to volunteer at her children’s schools and interact more with teachers, administrators, and parents.

“I feel like I’m in the know,” says Petrey, a member of the Loudoun Education Association. “Other parents ask me to keep an eye out for their children.”

Once overwhelmingly rural, Loudoun is now one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation. Over the years, the stay-at-home parents, teachers, retirees, farmers, and immigrants who drive school buses have changed, too.

“Twenty years ago, driving a school bus was a secondary income,” Lunsford says. “For more and more of our drivers today, it is their primary income.”

Petrey says another advantage of her job is driving past scenic horse farms, wineries, and brick-lined streets in the quaint small towns that share space with Loudoun’s rapidly growing subdivisions.

“I remember once being way up high in the bus looking out the window,” she says. “You’re in the fresh air. I don’t know how I could ever go back to an office.”

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