Lisa Bares and Lou Mahone didn’t plan to spend fall outside.
They were supposed to be navigating narrow residential streets, sweeping the trash accumulated between routes, telling students to sit down and not to throw things out the window. But this year, their job kept them in one place, fixing up a courtyard at Palmer Elementary in Newport News.
“They’ve been a blessing,” said Assistant Principal Jeff Armstrong said.
When schools closed in March, districts mostly kept bus drivers on their payrolls. Schools couldn’t afford to lose drivers, perennially in short supply.
Newport News has cited a shortage multiple times as an obstacle to high school students returning to the school building. In Hampton, about 15% of transportation department positions were vacant as of Nov. 2, according to the district’s reopening websites.
If schools let anyone go, it would take months to get a new hire trained and certified — and that’s if they can find someone willing to do a sometimes-thankless job, wrangling dozens of kids who don’t always want to be there.
“I miss the kids, although last school year, we were all just driving, and so I was tired,” Bares said. “I was exhausted.”
Most of the bus drivers knew what was about to happen before Gov. Ralph Northam ordered schools to close March 13.
Schools promised to keep drivers on the payroll through the summer at least, so Mahone and Bares weren’t too nervous about their jobs. But the early summer vacation got old quickly. Mahone, who has driven for Newport News for about five years, spent a lot of time playing guitar and listening to music.
“At first it felt like, ‘Oh, wow, an early vacation!’” he said. “Then after a while you’re going … ‘I want something to do.’ You’ve got to have a reason to get up in the morning.”
Bares had worked with children most of her life, going back to her first babysitting job in fifth grade. She started driving a bus in 2002 — she was in a small town in North Carolina where all teacher assistants were required to get certified to drive.
Concerned about the future, she briefly worked at Food Lion over the summer. That lasted about a month before she went on unemployment.
“It really wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Bares said.
She spent plenty of time around the house participating in one of her other passions: gardening. Bares has asthma and a heart condition, putting her at greater risk of serious illness if she contracts COVID-19, so she avoided going to a gardening store.
Instead, she used an old spoon to replant liriopes behind her building.
“I love gardening,” Bares said. “I could be outside all day.”
Any hopes drivers had of hitting the road again at the start of the school year were mostly dashed by early August. But to keep them on payroll in fall, districts needed to find new assignments. Some helped with mobile meal pickup sites. Some were assigned to school offices and buildings.
Bares and Mahone found themselves at Palmer. Their first assignments kept them inside. When an unexpected shipment of books arrived in the gymnasium a few days before Election Day, they helped get the books out of the way so poll workers could set up.
They returned student artwork hanging in the halls to teacher’s classrooms, distributed textbooks for when students returned, cleaned out a shed of learning materials and sorted through the school’s learning library.
“We can’t just sit there hour upon hour,” Mahone said. “We have to find something to do.”
Then, Armstrong pointed them to the courtyard.
The space had been mostly neglected. An unpruned grape vine had taken over a large swath of the concrete. Overgrown Mexican petunias and trees blocked the walkways. Stacks of bricks obscured a mural.
Bares took charge of the painting and planting. The courtyard is now full of the school colors of red, white and black.
Mahone helped with the pruning and refurbished the picnic tables and benches that were falling apart, including one that almost immediately collapsed when he started to work on it.
“I haven’t pulled out my carpenter skills in twenty-something years,” Mahone said. “I had to go borrow tools to do it because I got rid of all of mine.”
Bares said that it had been nice to get a break from driving for a few months, and although they missed some of the students, they were glad that the school district was waiting until COVID-19 cases went down before trying to pack students onto buses.
“I’m glad the parents are experiencing what we experienced with them,” Bares joked.
“You get used to it and you learn how to handle it. It’s just a select few who can be,” Mahone paused, “very challenging.”
Matt Jones, 757-247-4729, [email protected]
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