Starting Oct. 17, 40 buses that are only serving one school will add a run to a second school in the morning or afternoon, providing bus service to students who had previously been going without.
Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell announced the change at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, seeking to improve bus service that misses dozens of routes daily, which led students to miss more than 3,100 academic days through Sept. 28.
The service issue is caused by the inability of school bus contractors to fill open positions. The school system is working with contractors and the county to train and hire qualified drivers.
The system has identified 40 routes where planners originally said it was impossible to serve a second school in both the morning and afternoon, due to a lack of time or overlap between required trips. These routes serve only one high school or middle school presently.
Many routes changed this academic year because of a change in school start times.
Starting in August, high school start times shifted an hour later, to 8:30 a.m., elementary start times shifted earlier, to 8 a.m., and middle school times were set at 9:15 a.m. These changes compressed the window bus drivers have to pick up and drop off students at multiple schools by an hour. Times were changed by the school board to align with the recommendations of the American Academy for Pediatrics, which suggests starting school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for middle and high school students, to allow sufficient rest for those age groups.
By adjusting routes, officials say they have found enough time to make a trip to a second school along those 40 routes, but only in either the morning or the afternoon. The 40 buses will either serve a middle school in the morning or an elementary school in the afternoon. The system is still deciding which schools and routes to include.
“I fully realize this is not the total solution that our families — and we — want,” Bedell said in a statement Tuesday. “However, this will relieve at least some of the pressure on families who currently have to find ways to get their students both to and from school as we continue to work on other solutions.”
Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said the move is possible due to a number of small adjustments that have been made since the start of the year, as transportation officials eliminate stops without passengers and make other changes that shorten and refine trips.
Routing is not an exact science, Mosier said. When the school year starts and the transportation department sees what people are actually doing, they adapt the plans they made.
In addition to the partial service being added on 40 routes, Mosier said the system has been able to bring five routes to full service by making other adjustments, including three routes at North County High School. North County has experienced the highest number of transportation-related absences as of Sept. 28 with 524.
Bedell said the system will weigh a number of factors when deciding where to adjust routes and use an “equity lens aimed at identifying and eliminating negative barriers.” Officials will consider whether the change will make a meaningful difference in getting students to school on time and the number of students expected on a bus, the system said.
Bedell also told board members that at the semester’s end his staff will look at changing routes to provide service to those who have not had it so far this year, possibly eliminating service for others.
“At the start of the second semester for families that have not had a route, they should have a route,” Bedell said. “That creates a level of discomfort for families who have been allotted transportation during the first semester, but it’s the fair thing to do.”
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He promised advanced notification for any families who will lose bus service.
The system is continuing to address a shortage of bus drivers that has left thousands of students without service during the past two school years. In the first 21 days of school, students were marked absent more than 3,100 times because they did not have transportation.
Bedell said the system is buying additional passenger vans, which it can use to bring small numbers of students to special centers. Van drivers don’t need a commercial driver’s license and once someone is hired to drive a van, they can be trained and encouraged to drive a bus.
Using vans to transport students to special centers and other locations will free up buses and drivers who can be reassigned to uncovered routes, Mosier said.
Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs President Mallory LaFon spoke to the board Tuesday about the challenges parents have faced without bus service. The organization is encouraging parents to share videos, posts, photos and other content on social media with the hashtag #aaccptaprojectschoolbus to show how the lack of bus service has affected their family. Some have shared gas bills showing the cost of daily trips to and from school, and the AACCPTA is asking families to share throughout the fall.
LaFon said families understand that there is no quick fix but urged leaders to do something to make things better.
“Our students deserve safe and reliable transportation to school each day. We need communication, transparency, empathy and innovation,” she said.