Baltimore County parents brace for possible bus delays as school system tries to hire more drivers, fix kinks in system

Published on: August 28, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: August 31, 2022 5:24 PM EDT

Baltimore Count Public School buses sit in the Northwest bus lot in Milford Mill days before the first day of school.

As Nancy Carter’s husband dropped off their sixth grader at Pine Grove Elementary School’s half-day orientation on Thursday, she lingered around the bus stop with her dog to see what time the school bus would arrive.

It pulled up at 8:15 a.m., the same time that the first class started. The daughter rode the bus back home that afternoon. The return bus was scheduled to arrive at the school at 11:45 a.m. but didn’t get there to pick her daughter up until 12:30 p.m.

She also has a fourth grader. This is the first year that the siblings will attend separate schools.

“How are we going to juggle getting two kids to school on time while working full-time?” Carter asked.

As Baltimore County Public Schools struggle to fill vacancies for bus drivers — the district has about 50 fewer drivers than usual heading into the new school year — parents are concerned that school buses won’t be getting their kids to class on time.

Days before Monday’s classroom return, parents said pickup times that the system sent out are scheduled after, or close to, the time the school day starts. They are also still haunted by last year’s issues that resulted in bus driver no-shows or late drop-offs.

Carter said last school year, her daughter’s elementary school did a good job communicating about bus delays. But there were times when they were told a bus wasn’t guaranteed to come.

They weren’t told anything about Thursday’s orientation delays.

“It doesn’t give me much hope for what the rest of the school year will look like,” Carter said. “We’re already putting backup plans together.”

School system officials said they have removed preemployment barriers to attract more drivers and plan to work out the bugs before the first day.

Gboyinde Onijala, a spokesperson for the school system, said this year is the first in which schedules have been uploaded to Focus, the system’s online parent portal. Parents reported not being able to see the schedule or having pickup times that overlapped with the start time of school.

The system is “working rapidly” to make fixes, Onijala said, and parents who have an issue should give the school system a call.

Anne Arundel County is another sprawling suburban district that’s feeling the effects of a driver shortage. The school system reported 47 routes will not have bus drivers by the first day of school Monday. The county’s website states there are fewer bus stops this school year and that some students “will need to walk farther to get to those stops.”

A shortage of bus drivers is a longstanding problem in Baltimore County, and this year administrators also had to scramble to fill hundreds of teacher vacancies.

Concerns about the reliability of the district’s school buses drew the attention of the County Council last spring. A June 7 letter signed by some council members urged the school board to launch a search for a new superintendent, citing the transportation woes as one factor. Schools Superintendent Darryl Williams has defended his work to address the system’s problems, including the driver shortage.

Baltimore County transports 77,000 students twice a day on 785 bus routes with about 800 buses. The system announced in July that wages would start at $19.02 per hour.

“I don’t think money has anything to do with it,” said Barbara Bayer, the manager of Woodlawn North Motor Coach, which contracts with the school system. Her employees drive motor coaches and charter buses, but Bayer said it’s difficult to get school bus drivers because a lot of people don’t want to work with children.

“They can drive a truck and have nobody talk back to them,” she said.

Bayer also noted that the background check, drug test and physical required for drivers before they start makes it difficult to become a school bus driver.

Williams said they removed preemployment barriers and compensation upgrades were announced during a July school board meeting.

“We have had many sessions with our bus drivers just to talk about what they may need in terms of technology, in terms of support from the school-based administrators,” Williams said.

Drivers will not have to pay for fingerprinting, physical exams, drug testing and sleep apnea testing. Health care benefits are provided, and drivers can take paid time off. New drivers are offered a $250 signing bonus, and employees are also offered $250 if they successfully refer someone for the job. Both drivers and attendants can receive a $1,000 transportation retention bonus.

The system is asking para-educators and adult assistants to help drive buses. Williams said certified central office staff have also stepped in to drive, and that the system is seeing if retired staffers want to return to help.

“And we paid our bus drivers if they had to circle back and do a couple of additional routes,” he said.

To improve communication, the system is piloting an app that will allow parents to track where buses are on 45 routes. Parents in the northeast region were asked to register their kids for the bus. That area had the most delays, Williams said.

Jennifer Stump of White Marsh doesn’t think information about the registration form was communicated well. She said she’s part of a Facebook group for neighbors who live in Perry Hall; some users said they hadn’t heard about a form.

“I feel like the beginning of the school year is still going to be a mess because of that,” she said.

It was messy for her kids last school year. There were times when her son’s bus didn’t show until 8 a.m. when it was scheduled for 7:40 a.m. — if it showed up at all. She’d take him to school herself so he wasn’t late for the 8:20 a.m. bell. Although school finished at 3:05, her daughter wouldn’t get home until 4 p.m.

“We only live six miles away or so,” she said.

Later in the year, the school started sending texts when buses would be late, she said. But parents were getting alerts for all late buses. Stump became “desensitized” toward them because she’d receive one every day.

The country is experiencing a national school bus driver shortage that started before the pandemic. Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, said one way to address it is to recruit younger drivers. He said the school bus driver workforce is more mature than other industries. A study conducted by Pennsylvania’s General Assembly showed three-fourths of school bus drivers in the nation were 45 and older.

“We absolutely need to get younger folks into the system,” he said.

To do that, the process of getting a commercial driver’s license needs to be easier. Macysyn said it can take six to 12 weeks to get one. Driver vacancies are common across the country and it’s hard to pinpoint which areas have it worse than others. Since this year will be the closest to having a “normal” school year after two years of stringent COVID-19 protocols, it will give a better picture of how bad the shortage is.

But it’s getting better, according to Macysyn.

“I don’t think we’re out of the woods completely,” he said. “There’s still some work to be done but I think we’re trending in the right direction.”

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