Howard County public school students will continue getting rides next week from bus drivers flown in from other states, while dozens of local drivers work their way through a hiring pipeline.
Superintendent Michael Martirano told a board of education meeting that leadership for the Zūm transportation company assured him Thursday that its out-of-state drivers will remain in Maryland over the weekend to help staff the jurisdiction’s strained bus system. The Silicon Valley company flew in nearly 70 drivers from Washington state to Howard County for the first week of school to shore up staffing amid a nationwide driver shortage.
Despite the ambitious strategy, the first two weeks of school saw a cascade of problems — from major delays to suspended bus routes — that hampered travel arrangements for students assigned to Zūm buses. The problems come at a crucial time of the year when schools across the state are working to improve attendance. Both the Howard County school system and Zūm leadership have apologized for the disruptions and vowed to correct them.
The transportation startup, hired this year to provide service for about half of the county’s routes, expects 24 pre-certified drivers to come on board as soon as Monday with another 48 drivers currently enrolled in classes to become certified, Martirano told the county’s board of education Thursday evening. Many of the prospective drivers will be able to serve as van drivers and attendants until they complete the lengthier certifications required to drive a bus, he said.
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.
Martirano assured the board Thursday that he has directed staff to develop a plan that does not require members to adjust its standing policies. However, he hinted that changes to school start times could be on the table if problems persist, promising to return to the board with recommendations if necessary.
Ben Schmitt, president of the Howard County Education Association, the county’s teachers union, spoke out later in the meeting about further changes to start times. He acknowledged that some changes may be unavoidable, but stressed that scheduling upheavals can put a strain on educators, who must also arrange transportation and child care for their families.
Howard County has since restored 12 of the 20 routes that Zūm abruptly canceled last week due to drivers not showing up to work. Still, Martirano acknowledged more routes besides the 20 Zūm routes have experienced cancellations since last week due to driver callouts. In the meantime, the school system has leaned heavily on its local transportation contractors to bridge the gap.
“While we experience this reality every year, we are using many available drivers to cover reinstated routes, so the pool of available substitutes is thin,” Martirano said.
The troubling shortage has also left some special education buses without the necessary attendants, the superintendent said. The school system dispatched central office staff to help drive those Zūm-operated buses and vans until the contractor is able to secure more staff. Zūm still has 34 vacancies for bus attendants, he said.
During the meeting earlier in the day Thursday, school system and Zūm representatives swapped concerns and trends in hopes of smoothing out the significant delays that prevented some students from arriving at school on time. For example, local school leaders were surprised to discover some out-of-state drivers were unaware that Maryland vehicles can legally make right turns at red traffic lights.
The company’s tracking data suggests buses are getting caught in a snarl of traffic outside of their first school stops in the morning, causing a “significant domino effect,” Martirano said.
On Wednesday, Zūm bus GPS data showed 97% of the company’s vehicles arrived at their first pickup stop on time, but only 82% dropped off their first batch of students on time. The problem compounds, Martirano said, as buses collect their second and third batches of students later in the morning.
The 2,400 students who were impacted by the 20 route cancellations had an average attendance rate of 95% between Aug. 28 and Sept. 1, officials said. After 12 of those routes were restored, the attendance rate for the remaining 915 students has been 94% this week, Martirano said.
Parents who wish to track their child’s journey to and from school will have access to the Zūm parent app beginning Friday. The school system had delayed offering the app until it could be vetted for student data privacy concerns. Martirano said Thursday that the app meets the school system’s standards.