SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - More school bus drivers in New Hanover County have been calling out sick lately.
The reason? The flu.
According to Ken Nance, the director of transportation for New Hanover County Schools, seven drivers were out on Wednesday. That's double the number of drivers out sick on a normal day from any given illness.
"The drivers are exposed to 100 kids, 125 kids every day, and of course, the flu gets passed around fairly easily," Nance said. "If you're on the bus and a kid has the flu, there's a reasonable chance somebody else on the bus is going to get the flu, including the bus driver."
Columbus and Brunswick counties said more drivers than normal are out sick right now, but they can't say for sure if it's the flu.
According to the Bladen County school system, four drivers were out last week with the flu. Normally, two to three are out sick in a week.
WECT hadn't heard back from Pender County at the time this story was written.
Nance said when drivers call out sick, other drivers have to double up on runs, making some students as much as 45 minutes late to school.
According to Nance, doubling up on runs is something the drivers have to do almost every day because of a bus driver shortage in the county. He said with the flu knocking drivers out of commission in addition to that shortage, it can be difficult getting students to and from school on time.
"Kids have to be picked up, but they'll do a late call and the bus will just get there when it can get there," New Hanover County bus driver Tammy Wilson said. "We don't like it either but we're doing the best we can and it doesn't help when you got buses and no drivers."
"We're trying to recruit drivers as much as we can, but bus driver shortage is a problem all over the United States, not just here locally," Nance said. "Of course, you can't plan for people being out sick, but you try to at least have something in place to know you can cover, to know you can get the kids to school even if they may be late some days."
Nance said drivers are required to clean their buses at the end of each day. He said they were offered free flu shots, but weren't required to get them.
According to Wilson, this flu season has been worse than she has ever seen before.
"This year is really...there's been a lot of kids that will come on your bus that morning and that afternoon they're not even riding because they've been sent home because they have a fever," Wilson said. "They're coughing. They're hacking."
Bus drivers and the school system are talking this week about other possible ways to keep buses even cleaner with the flu season's peak still to come.
Even though Wilson said kids are coughing and sneezing just a few feet from her, she's not scared she'll be the next bus driver calling out sick.
"I have kids that hug me in the morning and hug me in the afternoon and it's going to be what it's going to be," Wilson said. "You hope your immune system is built up enough to where it will pass by you."