The evening before Howard County schools were set to open, Superintendent Michael Martirano was fully confident the buses were ready to go.
But by the time he began his commute to work Monday morning, the county’s top administrator knew transportation was already beginning to fall apart. In the following hours and days, thousands of Howard County students saw their bus routes canceled for the remainder of the first week of school, while other families experienced incorrect bus assignments, delayed rides or missing rides.
In detailed remarks on Wednesday, Martirano described those failures as “avoidable errors,” apologized to parents and students and pledged a forensic audit to ensure those problems would never happen again.
“I’m extremely, extremely disappointed that there were errors that could have been mitigated that were not,” he said during a nearly hourlong news conference.
The superintendent said the 2,400 students who were affected by the cancellations this week had an attendance rate Tuesday of 94% “no thanks to us.” The school system as a whole saw a 96% attendance rate on Tuesday and 95% on Monday, both higher than last year’s average attendance rate of 93.5%.
At the center of the fallout is a California tech company hired by Howard County school system to bring timeliness and consistency to bus operations. Zūm has a three-year, $27 million contract to operate nearly half of the district’s routes. Company representatives were not present for the school system’s news conference.
“We know that the disruptions that occurred this week have been an enormous stress on parents and children during this first week back to school,” the company states in a blog post. “For that, we would like to apologize to everyone who has been impacted.”
Zūm has attracted nationwide attention and lucrative contracts like the one in Howard County for infusing technology into what it refers to as an antiquated industry. The company flew nearly 70 drivers from Seattle and Spokane, Washington, to Maryland ahead of the first day of school, Martirano said. It also offers a mobile app that’s supposed to allow families to track their child’s bus, but Howard County administrators chose not to deploy the app this week because it had not yet been vetted for student data privacy.
Zūm centers prominently in the system’s overhauled transportation plan this year, which officials say was necessary after the Howard County Board of Education voted in February to move school start times later in the day. Research suggests later start times, particularly for teenagers, are associated with better academic outcomes and well-being.
However, the later start times mean buses have a smaller window of time to pick up students. Drivers in the past were often asked to “double back” for more batches of students as the morning progressed. The school system also used “double backs” to offset an average of 85 to 95 driver vacancies in recent years, as much of the nation is grappling with driver shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Martirano supports the adjustment to start times, but said they require the transportation system this fall to function efficiently with little slack in the schedule for error.
Just such an error played out almost immediately on the first day of school Monday, when Zūm’s 250 buses and vehicles became caught in a bottleneck while trying to exit the parking lot to pick up children, creating significant delays. The bottleneck was caused by a “failure in logistics” while distributing vehicle keys, Martirano said.
Zūm said its drivers use tablets preloaded with maps powered by the company’s own navigation technology. However, some parents reported that the drivers brought in from other parts of the country became lost this week while referring to printed paper maps of their routes.
A company statement said it received paper routes from the school system the Saturday before school began. Zūm digitized the routes and uploaded them to its system. As of Tuesday, all Zūm drivers had full route information, GPS-enabled tablets and turn-by-turn directions for every stop on their route, the blog post states.
Martirano confirmed errors in the data and routes provided to contractors this week caused drivers to become lost. The routes were not adequately stress tested to identify failures before the start of school, he said.
The superintendent apologized to families for the delays in a Monday morning email. Later in the afternoon, some parents reported their children arriving home from school nearly an hour behind schedule.
Parents then received another email in their inboxes after 11 p.m. canceling bus service for the rest of the week on 20 routes. Zūm said it could no longer service the routes after 20 drivers did not show up to work.
In deciding which routes to discontinue, the startup said it tried to ensure that no single school was unduly affected and gave priority to routes serving vulnerable students and those with disabilities, according to the blog post.
The company informed Martirano on Tuesday that it would provide an additional $500 per week bonus for drivers who go a month without an absence as well as an $8,000 incentive once a trainee completes the necessary licensing and certification to drive a school bus, he said.
In an emailed statement, a Zūm spokesperson said the company had made “tremendous progress” in recruitment and training. The company experienced a “significant logjam in this State certification process” but is working to certify all drivers quickly and safely.
Problems persisted on Wednesday. System leadership said a quarter of buses arrived late in the morning.
Martirano has since mobilized the deputy superintendent and all divisions chiefs, and has asked the system’s former transportation director David Ramsay to assist with coordination moving forward. The school system aims to restore the 20 routes that were canceled this week, he said.
Area transportation managers will be required to meet twice daily in person with community superintendents to review concerns as they come up throughout the day. Families who face barriers to picking up and dropping off their student this week are being asked to contact their schools for further assistance.
Martirano said he is meeting with Zūm’s chief executive officer and chief operating officer in person next week to ensure all failures have been addressed.
This article will be updated.
Baltimore Banner reporter Daniel Zawodny contributed to this article.