On the first day of school in Howard County, thousands of kids at their bus stops waited eagerly. And waited. And waited some more.
So many school buses showed up late, or didn’t show up at all, that Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano apologized to families in a Monday morning email.
“We are working to mitigate these challenges and will provide another update to families regarding information related to today’s dismissal shortly,” the email said. Martirano noted that school administrators and staff have been instructed to assist students “impacted by any adjustments” in finding the right bus to get home after school this afternoon.
The mixups left stressed-out parents finding alternate ways to get to school. Families took to Facebook to voice their frustrations, with the page Neighbors Buses compiling a list of more than 30 schools with reported transportation issues. Parents reported their children arriving home from school nearly an hour behind schedule this afternoon.
It was the first day of service for Zūm, a Silicon Valley-based tech company that just began a three-year contract to operate nearly half of the district’s school buses. And while it’s not clear if the delays and cancellations were all on Zūm buses, several parents who spoke to The Baltimore Banner said their children’s buses were operated by the contractor, who also issued an apology via a spokesperson.
“It was a mess,” said Ryan Watkins, a 35-year-old resident of North Laurel and mother to a first-grader at Hammond Elementary School. Watkins told The Baltimore Banner that her daughter practiced memorizing her bus number all weekend, but the bus that arrived 40 minutes late to pick her up this morning had a different number.
“She looked up at us and asked, ‘What bus do I get on this afternoon?’” said Watkins, noting that her child was already a bit anxious about the start to the new school year, and was visibly nervous waiting out at the stop this morning. “At this point, school had already been in session for like 15 minutes.”
In a later follow-up email to families, Martirano acknowledged that the busing issues “could cause additional anxiety for our students, staff and families,” saying that he will be monitoring the situation in the coming days.
The email continued to state that there was a “high likelihood” that 10 bus routes that service 19 schools would require double runs — when a bus drops off a round of students then doubles back for more — this afternoon. The district is preparing for delayed dismissals at some schools as a result.
An additional update will get sent out to families tonight regarding any bus updates for Tuesday morning, the email said.
‘We are aware of the issues’
Unlike other area school districts, the Howard County Public School System relies fully on private companies to operate its student transportation services. This year, it began a $27 million contract with Zūm, a company that infuses modern tech into what some see as an antiquated industry, decking its buses out with heightened safety features and GPS tracking thanks to its own navigation technology.
Families of children who ride a Zūm-operated bus can track the bus via the company’s mobile app. Watkins said that it was a Zūm bus that took her daughter to school this morning, but that getting the app working has been an issue. Watkins’ husband downloaded the app but received an error message when he tried to sign in with his phone number and email, telling him to contact the school district.
As of Monday afternoon, it was unclear if only routes operated by Zūm were affected, or if delays and cancellations happened across all of the district’s bus contractors.
“We are aware of the issues with the first day of school,” a spokesperson for Zūm wrote in an email. “Getting students to and from school safely and reliably is our number one priority, and we apologize for any impact this has had on students and their families. Zūm is working hard and swiftly along with the school district staff to resolve the issues as soon as possible.”
Neither Howard County school board chair Antonia Watts nor a Howard County school system spokesman responded to requests for comment Monday afternoon.
Confusion across the county
Abbas Zaidi’s two sons waited for more than 30 minutes for a bus that never came to their Ellicott City townhome community. Parents started loading their children into cars to drive them to Waterloo Elementary School 20 minutes after the bus was supposed to arrive, he said. One of his sons, who was attending his first day of kindergarten, was particularly upset because he missed his first bus ride and was late.
“My kids were very disappointed. They didn’t get off on a good note because of that,” Zaidi said. He was expecting his children to arrive home later than usual as well, he said, after communications from the school had said not to expect their bus to be on time. The neighborhood middle school bus also didn’t arrive on time.
“We were just happy that we were getting a bus at all after the scare this summer,” said Curt Francisco, father of a fourth-grader at Laurel Woods Elementary School. His neighborhood was one that was supposed to lose bus service after Howard County expanded the distance that elementary schoolers would have to walk to school to one mile.
He got school officials to come and walk the route with him, a route he said has unsafe roads without sidewalks. But the neighborhood never got final word on their appeal. It wasn’t until he got a text message prompting him to download the mobile application for Zūm that he looked further into it. The school district’s website listed his neighborhood as getting a bus.
“They never gave us any official response … I don’t know what happened,” he said.
But this morning, the bus wasn’t showing up. After seeing parents of high school and middle school students start shuffling kids into makeshift carpools, he and others assumed they would have to do the same. That’s when he saw a Zūm bus pull in down the road and park. He introduced himself to the driver, who he said appeared flustered and was flipping through printed-out maps. The driver was confused about the name of the school, but ultimately was the right one to take his son to school.
Crystal Wyser has three children in three different Howard County schools, and none rode a bus to school or back on Monday that was on time. She said all of the buses were operated by Zūm.
In the morning, they drove their children after buses failed to appear. In the afternoon, two of her girls were home 25 minutes late. The littlest one, who attends Bellows Spring Elementary School, was 50 minutes late.
Perhaps worst, Mayfield Woods Middle School sent out an email an hour and a half after dismissal saying that three buses still hadn’t arrived to take students home. Please arrange your own transportation, the email said.
She said she remains hopeful that tomorrow will be better. “I am optimistic. I am not impressed so far,” she said.
Brianna Wilson’s two daughters were 50 minutes late getting home from Elkridge Elementary. She said it was “ridiculous” that they got off the bus at 4:45 p.m. instead of the scheduled 3:56 p.m. She wasn’t notified by the school system of the delay until about 4:40 p.m., nearly an hour after her third-grader and fifth-grader were expected.
“There’s no way that they can be this late every single day,” she said.
If the delays persist, her daughters are going to be late for the 4:30 p.m. dance classes they have three times a week. She and her husband’s work schedules won’t allow for car pickups every day.
That morning he bus was only about five minutes late and her daughters were happy the seats weren’t crammed three people to a seat like previous years. Now, she has low expectations about the system making bus improvements anytime soon.
Ben Schmitt, president of Howard’s teachers union, said transportation hiccups are typical for the first week of school. And a national bus driver shortage has made it a bigger obstacle. Drivers had to make double runs last year, too, he said.
Part of his morning was spent at Thunder Hill Elementary School in Columbia. Bus delays “didn’t seem bad there,” according to Schmitt. He said only a couple were late.
If delays persists, he’d like to see teachers compensated appropriately if asked to stay late with the kids.
Baltimore County Public Schools reported a smooth bus run this morning. Superintendent Myriam Rogers, who spent the morning touring schools, said her team reported buses were rolling normally. And Bryan Epps, union president who represents Baltimore County bus drivers, said he didn’t hear of any delays or no-shows.
No unusual bus problems were reported in Anne Arundel or Harford County. Carroll County Public Schools will start the school year after Labor Day.
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.
This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Curt Francisco’s surname.