In Montgomery Co., bus driver shortages anger parents, strand students

By Nicole Asbury and Corinne Dorsey Updated November 1, 2022 at 10:27 a.m. EDT|Published October 29, 2022 at 7:00 a.m. EDT Washington Post

In Montgomery County, abus driver shortage has led to some schools having to excuse students from classes when their buses do not show up in the morning. At others, parent volunteers are solicited to drive groups of bus riders to school in their personal cars.Fast, informative and written just for locals. Get The 7 DMV newsletter in your inbox every weekday morning.

The transportation woes seen since schools have reopened have continued, and parents argue their students are suffering because of it. The problems seemed to spike this week, with a number of schools sending emails to parents Friday about routes being unstaffed and buses being late.

Gizework Atraga got an email early Friday morning that the bus that takes her child to Montgomery Knolls Elementary School in Silver Spring wouldn’t be coming. Miscommunication later with a staff member led her to believe the bus would come at some point. But that information was wrong, and she found out from the principal that the bus wouldn’t be there.

Atraga’s second-grader was instead driven to school by her father. But Atraga said the incident was frustrating and disrupted the family’s entire day. For her, the short notice is not enough.

“They have to give you a heads up, so you can prepare,” said Atraga, 35.

It wasn’t the first time it happened this school year. Even on the first day of classes, the bus didn’t show.

The school system, like many others, has struggled to staff routes amid a national shortage of drivers. Just over a week before school started, Montgomery County reported 70 open school bus driver positions; as of Friday, there were 32. Thirty people are in training, schools spokesman Chris Cram said. The problem hasn’t worsened, he said, but parents do have complaints. Last school year, the school system enlisted mechanics, supervisors and other employees to pick up routes as it worked to hire 100 new drivers before classes began.

Montgomery County Schools working to fill hundreds of teacher, staff vacancies

In a newsletter to parents this month, the school system noted the local and national challenges of recruiting and hiring bus drivers. When a bus driver or attendant can’t come to work because of an illness or other reason, “it puts a strain on the system to keep that bus on the road,” the newsletter read.

The school system uses substitute drivers and multiple runs to keep as many buses as possible on the road for school each day. Canceling a bus route is a last resort, according to the newsletter. If it happens, parents are supposed to be told the day before or by 6:15 a.m. the morning of. On Friday, dozens of routes were uncovered or delayed, according to the district’s website,which posts a lists of problem routes each day for morning and afternoon trips.

Cram said sometimes the notification doesn’t get to parents, because roughly 80 percent of the parent population has contact information online. He added that the school system was looking into having a system like that of Prince George’s County Public Schools, which posts real-time information on how far a bus is and when it’s projected to arrive.

Without reliable bus transportation, Montgomery County parents are having to scramble towork around notifying parents that a bus route would not be running and that any student who could find other ways to school would receive a pass to class. Students who couldn’t find other transportation would be excused. The school’s parent-teacher association is looking into mapping public transportation routes that line up with school bus routes to help get students to school on time when the buses are delayed or don’t run.

Other parents are coordinating volunteers to help students get to class. At Silver Creek Middle School in Kensington, the parent-teacher association is working to expand a list of volunteers on days when buses don’t run. Those parents park their cars at an assigned bus stop and take the students waiting there to school. The PTA sends emails to families in the morning with the make, model and color of the vehicles that are getting students to school. The school used parent drivers for at least three bus stops Friday, according to an email sent to families.

Shannon Ingram, a parent who lives in Olney, waits at the stop at 6:40 a.m. every day to see if a bus will come pick up her 13-year-old daughter. The eighth-grader attends Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, a magnet school that is roughly a 45-minute commute from their home.

If no bus arrives by 7 a.m., Ingram and her family change their schedules to make sure the 13-year-old makes it to class on time.

“It’s about a broad problem all over, but especially for the kids in the magnet programs that … have tried their hardest to get into these schools, to leave them high and dry,” Ingram said. “This just a slap in the face for these kids.”

But even when the bus has shown up on time, there have been other issues. One time after school, the bus nearly dropped her daughter off at the wrong stop.

Pr. George’s schools may combine classes amid 900 teacher vacancies

Pia Morrison, president of Montgomery’s chapter of the Service Employees International Union — which represents bus drivers, said many employees left when the pandemic began. She added that the school system — which is Maryland’s largest with more than 160,000 students — needs to reevaluate how much it pays employees and make sure the rate is competitive. From a fiscal standpoint, the school system is “falling behind in compensation,” she said.

Montgomery’s starting pay for drivers is $22.42 per hour (once a driver successfully completes the bus operator training), according to a hiring notice on the system’s website. Neighboring Prince George’s County offers a starting pay range of $20.32 to $39.97.

“We can’t continue to use old ways to solve new problems, so there needs to be a level of creativity,” Morrison said. “And that probably involves opening the organizational wallet.”