In Montgomery Co., the shortage of bus drivers angers parents and students
Gizework Atraga received an email early Friday morning that the bus taking her child to Montgomery Knolls Elementary School in Silver Spring would not be coming. A miscommunication later with a member of staff led her to believe that the bus would arrive at some point. But this information was wrong and she learned from the director that the bus would not be there.
Atraga’s second-year student 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 let you know, so you can prepare,” said Atraga, 35.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened this school year. Even on the first day of class, the bus didn’t show up.
The school system, like many others, has struggled to staff routes amid a national driver shortage. Just over a week before school starts, Montgomery County reported 70 open school bus driver positions; on Friday, there were 32. Thirty people are in training, said the schools’ spokesman, Chris Cram. The problem hasn’t gotten worse, he says, but parents have complaints. Last year, the school system recruited mechanics, supervisors and other employees to support routes as it worked to hire 100 new drivers before classes began.
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In a newsletter to parents this month, the school system noted the local and national challenge in recruiting and hiring bus drivers. When a bus driver or attendant cannot come to work due to illness or some other reason, “it strains the system to keep that bus on the road,” reads the newsletter.
The school system uses replacement drivers and multiple routes to keep as many buses on the road for school each day. Canceling a bus route is a last resort, according to the bulletin. If this happens, parents are supposed to be notified the day before or before 6:15 in the morning. As of Friday, dozens of routes were uncovered or delayed, according to the district’s website, which publishes a daily list of problematic routes for morning and afternoon trips.
Cram said sometimes the notification doesn’t reach parents because about 80% of the parent population has their contact information online. He said the school system is considering having a system like Prince George’s County Public Schools that publishes real-time information about how far a bus has traveled and when it’s expected to arrive.
Without reliable bus transportation, parents in Montgomery County must rush to overcome shortages. At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, officials sent an email Friday morning notifying parents that a bus route would not be operating and that any student who could find other ways to get to school would be given a pass. – pass for the class. Students who cannot find another means of transport will be excused. The school’s parent-teacher association plans to map transit routes that align with school bus routes to help get students to school on time when buses are delayed or not not work.
Other parents coordinate volunteers to help students get to class. At Silver Creek Middle School in Kensington, the Parent-Teacher Association is working to expand the list of volunteers on days when the buses are not running. These parents park their car at a designated 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 vehicles that would take students to school. The school used parent drivers for at least three bus stops on Friday, according to an email sent to families.
Shannon Ingram, a parent who lives in Olney, waits at the stop at 6.30am every day to see if a bus will pick up her 13-year-old daughter. The eighth-grader attends Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, a magnet school that’s about a 45-minute ride from his home.
If no bus arrives at 6:40 a.m., Ingram and her family change their schedules to make sure the 13-year-old gets to class on time.
“This is a huge problem everywhere, but especially for the kids in the magnet programs who are going out of their way to get into these schools and have done their best to get into these schools, to keep them dry. “, Ingram said. “It’s just a slap in the face for these kids.”
But even though the bus arrived on time, there were other problems getting her daughter to class. Once the bus dropped her daughter off at the wrong school.
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Pia Morrison, president of the Montgomery 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 the largest in Maryland 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 when it comes to compensation,” she said.
Montgomery’s starting salary for drivers is $22.42 per hour (once you successfully complete bus operator training), according to a hiring notice on the system’s website. Neighboring Prince George’s County offers a starting salary range of $20.32 to $39.97.
“We can’t keep using old ways to solve new problems, so there has to be a level of creativity,” Morrison said. “And that probably involves opening the organization’s wallet.”