UNION COUNTY, N.C. — Roughly 41,000 students returned to the classroom Monday in North Carolina’s sixth largest school district. 

Union County Public Schools started the school year with optional mask policies in place after an emergency board meeting last week kept the optional policy unchanged.

What You Need To Know

  • Masks are required on school buses but optional in school buildings, according to district leaders

  • Union County Public Schools needs at least 35 more bus drivers as 15 candidates are in training

  • District has combined some bus routes and will have certain buses run two routes 

The board voted 7-2 to keep masks optional, leaving some parents and students on edge about the return to the classroom. 

At the same emergency board meeting, the county heard an update on the need for more school bus drivers.

Currently, there are 195 school bus drivers in Union County with 225 assigned bus routes.

The county needs roughly 230 drivers to have smooth operations across the district, with as few delays as possible, according to Director of Transportation Scott Denton. But, 250 drivers is the preferred number, he added.

At the end of school last year, Denton told board members they had 253 buses assigned routes with 218 drivers. However, with rising retirement rates and resignations due to COVID-19 and other factors, the number of drivers declined to 195.

To cover the difference, Denton said the department was combining routes and bus stops, and having some buses run multiple routes.

The district is encouraging parents to use the ‘Here Comes the Bus’ app to track their child’s bus route and stay updated on changes or possible delays.

Denton added his office is also actively recruiting, with 15 candidates in the process of training to become a school bus driver. The training can take four to six weeks. Even if all 15 applicants make it through the training process, the district would still need 20 more drivers to hit its goal of 230. 

Earlier this month, the district held its first driver career fair at the transportation center. The district invited potential applicants to apply, speak with experienced drivers, and take ride alongs on county buses.

Career fair attendees, like Larry Copeny, hoped to join the team of school bus drivers.

“Because I want to feel like I’m able to do things that I used to do and I love doing,” Copeny said.

Copeny, who says he was hit by a car in 2006, used to drive professionally and is hoping to get back behind the wheel and help students get to school this year.

“I’ve drove everything you can think of,” Copeny added.

After applying at the county transportation center during the fair, he went outside to go on a test drive with an experienced driver. He ended up learning the ropes from Frank Hinson, a tenured driver about to start his 12th school year behind the wheel.

Driving around the parking lot, they went over braking, stopping and student safety.

But the drive was also an opportunity for an experienced school bus driver to share wisdom with a potential recruit.

“The kids I just love, I truly do, they’re just sweet as they can be,” Hinson said.

Hinson retired from his sales job years ago and decided to work as a driver at a friend’s suggestion.

“So I thought, ‘Well, with the honey-do list I have, this is a better alternative,” Hinson said with a smile.

The job was initially supposed to be for a year or two, but he fell in love with it. Hinson and his wife use the bus driving money to travel and enjoy their retirement over the summer months. With COVID-19, last year’s plans were put on hold.

Despite the pandemic, Hinson is back and ready for another year behind the wheel.

“It kind of gives me purpose in a way, so I just enjoy it that much,” he said.

It’s a feeling he hopes Copeny takes home after a successful test drive through the parking lot.

“I enjoyed the test drive. Now I just want to see what they think about me doing the test drive,” Copeny said with a laugh.

When Spectrum News 1 spoke with Copeny on the eve of schools returning, he said he had not heard from the district about his application.

For more details on how to apply for bus driver positions, download the ‘Here Comes the Bus’ app. Click here for bell schedules for the 2021-2022 school year.