Tens of thousands of Howard County children started school this week, but busloads of them walked in the door late. And got home late. And won’t have a bus for the rest of the week.
Swarms of cars driven by frustrated parents are turning into school loops across the county each morning, forming makeshift carpools to supplement buses that may or may not arrive. School officials and a spokesperson for the district’s newest bus contractor have issued apologies for the rocky start to the academic year.
Here’s a compilation of what we know so far. Have a question that you don’t see answered? Drop us a line.
How many students are unexpectedly without bus service?
School officials said Wednesday morning at a press conference that the 20 bus routes suspended this week carry 2,400 kids to school and back.
In a series of emails to parents late Monday night and early Tuesday morning families were asked to find alternative means of getting kids to school. The cancellations affect 35 schools — 20 elementary schools, 10 middle and five high schools.
The attendance rate for the kids stranded without bus service was 94% — slightly less than the school system’s overall attendance rate of 96% on Tuesday. That means around 144 students without bus service did not attend school.
Howard County has about 500 bus routes that transport roughly 40,000 students.
But stories abound from parents — many of whom have spoken with The Baltimore Banner directly — about “no-show” buses that aren’t on the official cancellation list, buses that are arriving late and buses skipping stops.
County officials have not confirmed how many students have been affected and have been unresponsive to questions and requests for more information from The Banner. Brian Bassett, a spokesperson for the school system, said a press conference would be held Wednesday.
Who’s at fault?
It’s unclear. The 20 official route cancellations resulted from the school district’s newest transportation contractor, Silicon Valley-based tech company Zūm, not having enough drivers to run those routes. And nearly all of the parents that spoke with The Baltimore Banner who had an experience with a late or no-show bus mentioned that Zūm was the operator. But a school board member said they are not ready to point the finger at Zūm quite yet.
A spokesperson for the Howard County Public School System told The Baltimore Banner last week that the school district — not the companies that operate their buses — determine the routes that bus drivers run. And a spokesperson for Zūm said on Tuesday afternoon that the company was given “paper routes” on Saturday that they have since been digitizing and uploading into their system, seemingly pointing the finger back at school officials.
Zūm’s statement went on to state that “our drivers now have full route information on Zum tablets which includes navigation support.”
Howard County officials said Wednesday morning that they will be meeting with Zūm’s executive team next week to ensure that all failures will be addressed. They blamed a failure to properly distribute keys on Monday morning, as well as the design of Zum’s bus lot, as leading to a major bottleneck, causing buses to arrive late.
So, what is Zūm?
It’s not Zoom, the work-from-home tool. The Silicon Valley startup hit the road in 2016 thanks to backing from venture capital, initially providing supplemental, smaller vehicle transportation for school districts on the West Coast. It’s since grown, handling school bus routes in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago and more. It recently took over as Oakland Unified School District’s sole student transportation provider, and company officials said that the contract with Howard County was its first major deal on the East Coast.
The company infuses technology into what it refers to as an antiquated industry, aiming to modernize student transportation. There’s a mobile app that’s supposed to allow families to track their child’s bus. All drivers use tablets preloaded with maps powered by the company’s own navigation technology. All bus drivers have a camera aimed at them while they drive that uses artificial intelligence to give them a running safety score.
Is Zūm’s technology working in Howard County?
Families are reporting hiccups with some of the tech. Some parents said that they received text message prompts to download the Zūm mobile app, but had no idea what the company was — they said that school officials had not warned them to be on the lookout for it — so they assumed it was spam. One parent said that he tried to download the app, but got an error message when he entered his phone number and email.
Zum wrote in a blog post that its parent app was operational but that Howard County school system officials had chosen not to deploy it. School officials said at a press conference Wednesday that they had not fully vetted the app for student data privacy.
And the tablets didn’t appear to be online, either. Some parents reported seeing disoriented drivers fumbling with paper maps, and the bus numbers did not match that of the bus they were told to look out for.
Why didn’t Zūm have enough drivers to cover its routes this week?
Zūm is contracted to cover 230 of the county’s 500′s bus routes — close to half. Howard County school officials said Wednesday morning that Zūm had flown in close to 70 drivers from Seattle and Spokane to service the routes.
In an emailed statement, a Zūm spokesperson said that they had made “tremendous progress” in recruitment and training, and that they “brought in fully trained and certified drivers from other Zum locations to provide coverage while our new recruits go through certification.”
The company has ramped up its driver recruitment in the area, touting a starting wage between $26 and $30 per hour and a slew of benefits.
So Howard County doesn’t have its own buses?
Nope. Unlike districts such as Baltimore County — which uses a mix of in-house drivers and private contractors to cover its routes — Howard County relies exclusively on private companies to run student transportation. It also spends less money per student on busing than four other surrounding school districts.
Weren’t there previous concerns with Howard County buses this summer?
Though some parents and administrators say they haven’t seen a start to the school year quite like this one, for many families, the bus problems are a continuation of ongoing transportation concerns. A driver shortage caused route delays for some students last year, and the district recently expanded the distance that students must walk to school, effectively cutting bus service for thousands of students.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.
The data graphic has been updated to reflect that Baltimore City Public Schools provides transportation services to a small portion of students.