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School Bus Woes

Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the MDOT MVA to fasttrack CDL licensing for school bus drivers. Photo courtesy MDOT MVA>

What’s being done about bus driver shortages?

By Kathy Knotts

Families, students and teachers were mostly excited to be returning to in-person school at the beginning of the month. Backpacks were ready, alarm clocks set, and first day of school outfits picked out.

That excitement quickly turned to frustration and confusion as a nationwide bus driver shortage left families scrambling to transport their children to school—on the very first day.

Three weeks later, the situation is slightly better but still inadequate.

Anne Arundel County has 128 schools, serving approximately 83,000 students, making it the fourth-largest of Maryland’s 24 school districts behind only the Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Baltimore County. In 2018-2019, according to a comprehensive transportation services evaluation prepared by Prismatic Services Inc., just over 62,000 AACPS students were eligible for bus transportation.

         AACPS has 54 of its own buses to transport special education students. The system also contracts with 15 private companies to transport regular education students on 585 routes.

Calvert County Public Schools includes 23 schools and over 15,000 students ride the bus. CCPS does not own any buses or employ any drivers directly but uses 23 contractors for student transportation.

Officials say the school shutdown last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbated a staffing shortage problem that began long before 2020. When schools closed for in-person instruction, drivers had to find new jobs.

Across the nation, news stories have cropped up that companies such as Amazon are actively and competitively approaching bus drivers to work for them, offering better pay and hours. In an online press call, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman retold an anecdote he heard that bus drivers were being approached in the bus lots and offered new jobs.

In Calvert County, as of Monday, Sept. 27, there are 18.5 routes affected by the shortage, bringing the total number of buses to 135 when normally there would be 153. As of Tuesday afternoon, 13 routes in Anne Arundel were listed as being without a bus (aacps.org/buses).

In both counties, one bus may be responsible for transporting students to three or four different schools on their route. Which means the burden of getting a child to school falls to the parents or guardians when that bus doesn’t show up on time.

An increase in the number of parents dropping off and picking up children at school means an increase in traffic and disruptions. Amanda Marr of Shady Side said the parent pick-up line at her elementary school stretches down Snug Harbor Road with families lining up more than 30 minutes before the dismissal bell.

Some families in the Atlantis neighborhood on the Broadneck peninsula have teamed up to help each other out. “We started a schedule with the neighbors so each family drives the crew one day week,” reports parent Amy Mahoney. Five families take turns driving children to Cape St. Claire Elementary, “making the best of the situation,” Mahoney says.

In a letter to AACPS families, Superintendent of Schools George Arlotto mentioned how residents are coming together to help find solutions. “Families of our students have stepped up in innumerable ways, and we have had generous offers from churches and community groups to utilize passenger vans to transport students to and from school. City of Annapolis police officers are also providing rides to students where they can, and we deeply appreciate that effort.”

“While I regret that it has been necessary, I have been heartened by the willingness of those in our community that have formed carpools and taken other steps to assist in getting our students to and from school where they can. I appreciate that more than I can convey, and I thank each and every person who has stepped forward to lend aid,” he stated.

Some families without nearby support or friendly neighbors are hiring taxis, Ubers and Lyfts to transport their children.

Even for those who may have a seat on a bus, there’s additional stress to the routes. Anna Goldsby of Dunkirk is a mother of two children at Mt. Harmony Elementary. “I am so glad that my kids get to attend there … but, I do have a bus situation. Class starts at 8:45 a.m. every day. My kids get picked up by the bus at 8:50 a.m. and they aren’t even on the end of the route. There are still more kids to be picked up, so I am guessing my two likely get to class around 9:15, which is 30 minutes late.”

Goldsby also reports that there are no substitute drivers in all of Calvert County, meaning if a bus can’t run for whatever reason, then all the kids on that route have to be taken to school by someone else.

Arlotto sent out a letter of apology to all AACPS families for the situation. “This was a mistake on our part, and I take responsibility for it … We will do better moving forward. As to the current situation, our Transportation Division team is continuing to work closely with each of the contractors to assist in solving the problem of uncovered routes.”

He stated that some of the short-term solutions include combining routes, doubling up routes, sharing drivers and reassigning routes.

County and state leaders have also been meeting with school systems, contractors and the Maryland Department of Transportation for solutions, both short-term and long.

Pittman released his notes from a Sept. 12 meeting with Arlotto, his staff, representatives from Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley’s office, state senators and delegates, city and county councilmembers and school board members. The group’s first recommendation was to offer financial assistance “from federal funds to provide contractors with signing bonuses or other incentives so that they can remain competitive with companies that are actively working to poach their drivers. Doing so requires amendments to contracts and confirmation of American Rescue Plan (ARP) eligibility.” The county executive’s office is in conversation with Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp and Anne Arundel Workfroce Development Corp on ways to further incentivize hiring.

Jeff Amoros, spokesperson for the county executive, said Pittman will attend a CDL virtual roundtable next week with bus companies, AAWDC, MVA, and Arlotto, to discuss the challenges in recruitment and retainment as well as ways to increase “the pipeline of drivers and resolve obstacles in the MVA testing and licensure processes.”

One proposed solution that has already been implemented are using public bus routes within Anne Arundel County and the City of Annapolis for children over the age of 12. All county and Annapolis Transit buses are free for students. Detailed instructions on how to use the county and city transit system are posted at aacps.org/AHSbusestoschool and aacps.org/MSbusestoschool.

In the Slow Lane

A backlog that began during the pandemic for testing and licensing at the Maryland Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Administration may have been keeping potential bus drivers from obtaining their Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).

Prospective school bus drivers are trained with both classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction by the independent contractors once they have obtained the CDL license.

Last week, Governor Larry Hogan directed MDOT MVA to take steps to make sure school bus drivers are able to obtain proper testing and credentials as quickly as possible to help meet the needs of school systems across the state. So Saturday, Sept. 25 became Bus Drivers’ Day at MVAs across the state.

“MDOT MVA tested 44 CDL applicants on Saturday,” says Whitney Nichels, media relations manager. “In an effort to assist Maryland’s school districts as much as possible, we are keeping the [email protected] email address open and continuing to fast-track appointments for bus driver trainees. Right now, there is no set date for a future Bus Driver Day at the MVA, but we are working directly with several jurisdictions to determine when they will have drivers ready to test and we will continue to prioritize this issue under the leadership of Governor Hogan to ensure safe transportation for students statewide.”

Yet 44 new drivers may be just a drop in the bucket for the school systems. Ed Cassidy, director of transportation for Calvert County Public Schools says things are not improving there. “It is worse, as one driver who started the school year has since retired, and we are told a few are contemplating resigning from their independent contractor.”

Both school systems say they are doing what they can to alert families through email, text messages, and updated website postings.

CCPS’s Cassidy says they also offer free training for drivers and try to get the word out about the need. But in the end, he says they “are looking at the actual ridership on 135 buses to determine how to rewrite their routes to do the work of 153.”

Photo courtesy MDOT MVA.