Thousands of Howard County public school students were stranded without a yellow bus ride to school for a second day in a row, after a California tech company hired to solve transportation issues couldn’t provide buses for 20 routes for at least the first week of school.
The transportation debacle appeared to surprise school officials who grappled all day Monday to keep up with a cascade of problems on different routes. Frustrated parents, whose routines have been upended, found an email in their inboxes after 11 p.m. canceling bus service for the rest of the week on 20 routes. Thirty-five schools are affected by the loss of service, according to the email.
Then, at 6 a.m., another email suddenly appeared correcting misinformation in the 11 p.m. email.
Superintendent Michael Martirano, who has been in the job since 2017, has not been available for interviews, nor has the public information officer. A press conference is scheduled for Wednesday.
The Silicon Valley-based tech company, Zūm, has promised to transform student transportation in Maryland and beyond, with an app designed to let parents track buses in real time and 250 new, well-outfitted yellow buses. Zūm has a three-year, $27 million contract to operate nearly half of the district’s bus routes.
But problems began early on the first day of classes when 200 buses tried to squeeze out of one parking lot at the same time, causing delays. And there didn’t appear to be enough drivers for the number of routes, even after the company said it had flown in drivers from its other locations around the country.
Some buses arrived at neighborhood bus stops 20 to 30 minutes late. Parents reported that single buses were carrying students who attended different schools, that drivers appeared not to know the routes, and that children were left to walk home. Buses delivered students home as much as an hour late, or not at all.
The school system told parents in an email that it was trying to correct some of the issues from Monday. Administrators said some families’ bus assignments did not match the numbers on the sides of the buses. To address these discrepancies, the district said, buses on Tuesday were to have signs in their windows with numbers that aligned with those found in family files in HCPSS Connect.
On Tuesday, however, parents continued to report issues with buses showing up as much as an hour late.
Amy Becker, who has children at Clarksville Middle School and Swansfield Elementary School, said her son’s bus route was one of the 20 that weren’t supposed to run, but that information wasn’t clearly communicated to her neighborhood. The bus came, but it skipped her son’s stop. She saw the bus make a wrong turn on a different street, and then it never came to pick up her son.
”I have no confidence that I can rely on the communication from HCPS and have it actually be accurate,” Becker said. “This is not acceptable. This is really a failure on the part of the school system.”
By Tuesday afternoon, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball addressed the issue. “I share in the frustration that too many students, parents and families have experienced with these transportation hurdles,” Ball said in a statement. Ball added that the county had increased school transportation funding by 40% in the past four years and invested in 85 infrastructure projects to improve safety for students walking to school.
“We apologize to the families and students who have been impacted this week,” a Zūm spokeswoman said in an email. The company said it had worked to recruit new drivers this summer and have them certified.
Zūm noted a “lag in the certification from the state,” and appeared to blame the county for providing their drivers with “paper routes” on Saturday, just two days before school started. They said they have digitized and uploaded the routes. “Our drivers now have full route information on Zūm tablets which includes navigation support. We are working around the clock with the District to ensure that all students have access to transportation services,” the statement said.
Parents report widespread confusion and safety concerns
School board president Antonia Watts said the board was told by the superintendent that staff was meeting with school bus contractors “to make sure they fully understand their routes and the expectations.” One option for parents, she said, would be to have older students use public transit. The Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland offers free bus passes to middle and high schoolers in the district.
Although Watts acknowledged that delays early in the school year aren’t unusual, this year “is not something we have experienced recently.”
Becker called the school transportation office yesterday to ask if her kids could expect a bus in the afternoon. She said she knows that they are probably inundated with calls, but was still disappointed not to get an official answer. “But the secretary told me not to rely on the bus,” she said.
Becker and her neighbors are worried about safety, too. A group of parents followed her middle school daughter’s bus yesterday to make sure it got to school OK — they saw it drive over a grassy median, which her daughter later confirmed for her.
She’s worried about the training that drivers have gotten and whether they were adequately prepared to travel their assigned routes.
“While the contractor currently has drivers in the training pipeline and is working to address the vacancies,” the school system wrote in an email, “they are asking families who are served by the following routes to make alternative arrangements for your students to get to and from school for the remainder of the week.”
Outside Thunder Hill Elementary School on Tuesday morning, drivers made U-turns on the quiet suburban street to join the line of cars dropping off students. Two of the school’s routes were canceled this week.
”Good morning, thank you for your patience,” a staffer greeted parents before gently redirecting the cars that tried to make tricky left turns into the parking lot.
One father walked briskly back to his car after drop-off. His child’s bus route was dropped Tuesday morning, he said, but he didn’t have time to talk about the cancellation’s impact because he was “still on the clock” for work.
Thunder Hill parent Nikki English, who serves on the technology and communications committee for the school’s parent-teacher association, said she wasn’t sure whether the organization could do anything about the problems.
“It was really disturbing,” English said of the bus route cancellations and delays. “It’s definitely going to be a struggle.”
For at least 15 minutes after the school’s official start time, vehicles including a white minivan with a Zūm logo trickled into the parking lot to unload youngsters in backpacks.
Ben Schmitt — president of the Howard County Education Association, the county’s teachers union — was observing the morning arrivals at Mayfield Woods Middle School on Tuesday. Kids were supposed to enter the buildings between 8:30 and 8:35 a.m. But as of 9 a.m., there were still four buses that had not arrived, not including the bus from one of the canceled routes.
”And what made things more interesting, that I have never seen in my 25 years, was a van showed up, and the only thing that I could say to describe what this van looked like … almost like something used by a contractor … dropped off three or four children,” he said.
According to Schmitt, the van had a Zūm sticker plastered on it. He also saw kids exit an Uber and later heard that Bellows Spring Elementary School had informed parents to drive their kids to school for the three buses that didn’t show up until 10 a.m.
Schmitt noted that teachers also have been affected by the transportation fiasco. He’s heard from a couple of teachers who stayed late Monday afternoon to wait with the kids with bus delays. Those teachers have families of their own they need to take care of, he said, adding, ”We are making sure that no one is being forced or guilted into staying late.”
Curt Francisco saw a Zūm bus pull into his North Laurel neighborhood and stop yesterday, so he took it upon himself to walk over and ask the driver if they were driving his fourth-grader’s route.
He said that the driver was fumbling through paper maps, and mentioned that they weren’t from the area — Zūm had flown them in from Spokane, Washington, to cover a route. Brian Bassett, a school system spokesperson, previously told The Banner that Zūm would fly in bus drivers to cover routes if needed.
Before the final bell rang at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Zūm buses were lined up and ready to take kids home. School building officials, who said they were instructed not to talk to the news media, said they expected a smoother transport that afternoon. But Wilde Lake Middle School, a five-minute walk away, had just one Zūm bus in the lot when kids were dismissed at 3:25 p.m. Buses trickled in one by one as kids lingered around the bus lot perimeter. About a dozen buses later, the final bus rolled in at 4:01 p.m.
Bus driver shortages plague state, nation
School systems around the nation have struggled since the pandemic to deliver students to school. Older drivers retired rather than risk COVID-19. Low pay contributed to a shortage of drivers.
The disruptions experienced in Howard County this week appear to rival the issues that Anne Arundel County experienced at the beginning of last school year when it couldn’t provide drivers for dozens of routes and parents had to get their children to school and back.
Bob Mosier, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said that on the worst day of that crisis, 50 bus routes weren’t covered. In the past two years, the county has given drivers a 20% salary increase, Mosier said, as well as instituted the use of vans instead of school buses to pick up small numbers of children, particularly those with special needs. Because those drivers didn’t need the qualifications required to drive a school bus, the move freed up many bus drivers to take over the traditional bus routes.
School systems in the Baltimore region are also expanding the distances that they require students to walk to school, thus reducing the number of buses they need. Howard County cut bus service to roughly 3,500 students and then hired Zūm in an effort to bring more timeliness and consistency to bus operations.
Zūm operates yellow buses in a number of major city school systems, including Oakland, California; Chicago; San Francisco; Los Angeles; and Dallas.
It is not the only tech firm to enter the school transportation market. When Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky hired AlphaRoute to reorganize its bus routes to gain efficiencies, the outcome was a disaster. The school system had to close schools for the first week of school to sort out the problems, according to the Associated Press.
The routes that Zūm will not be able to cover for Aug. 29-Sept. 1 are:
1020 — Mt. Hebron HS, Patapsco MS, St John’s Lane ES
1023 — Centennial HS, Centennial Lane ES, St John’s Lane ES
1148 — Atholton HS, Cradlerock ES
1161 — Atholton HS, Thunder Hill ES
1163 — Wilde Lake HS, Wilde Lake MS
1165 — Atholton HS, Wilde Lake MS
1168 — Atholton HS, Mayfield Woods MS, Bellows Spring ES
1191 — Long Reach HS, Lake Elkhorn MS, Atholton ES
1078 — Clarksville MS, Pointers Run ES
1090 — Hammond HS, Bollman Bridge ES, Gorman Crossing ES
1155 — Oakland Mills HS, Phelps Luck ES, Thunder Hill ES
1201 — Long Reach HS, Phelps Luck ES, Atholton ES
1122 — Patuxent Valley MS, Murray Hill MS
1144 — Atholton HS, Swansfield ES, Waterloo ES
1053 — Dunloggin MS, Burleigh Manor MS, Northfield
ES1176 — Atholton HS, Talbot Springs ES, Waterloo ES
1089 — Hammond HS, Bollman Bridge ES, Gorman Crossing ES
1070 — Hammond HS, Hammond MS, Guilford ES
1173 — Wilde Lake HS, Bryant Woods ES, Running Brook ES
1154 — Wilde Lake HS, Wilde Lake MS, Running Brook ES