Every morning Julie Hummer brings as many students as she can with her on the journey to Meade High School, making sure they arrive on time so they don’t miss instruction.
She can’t depend on the Anne Arundel County school bus to get the kids there in time for the bell, she says. To make the new bus schedule for her neighborhood work, Hummer said, the system would need to hire the fictional teacher Ms. Frizzle, a cartoon character who took students on flying adventures in the ‘90s TV show “The Magic School Bus.”
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As school enters its second week, the system continues to struggle to fill vacancies among school bus drivers, most of whom are hired through contractors, citing increased competition for workers with commercial driver’s licenses. The shortage of drivers means more late buses and route outages. On Wednesday, 78 out of 585 contracted routes were without service.
The board has said school start time changes won’t affect the ongoing bus crisis. But Hummer, a parent, teacher and former school board president, said the new timing of buses, prompted by the shift in start times, is not working.
She gave an example from her community. The bus that is assigned to take her children to Meade High School makes a run to pick up and drop off elementary school children first. Hummer said the last pickup for that elementary run is scheduled at 7:36 a.m. The first pickup on the high school route is scheduled for 7:37 a.m., at a stop 10 miles away.
The bus is reliably late, Hummer told members of the Anne Arundel Board of Education during its Wednesday afternoon meeting.
Hummer urged the board to consider what would be necessary to make the time changes work without massive transportation inequities as it considers the fiscal 2024 budget. Changing the start times might not be cost-neutral.
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“Any positive mental health effects brought about by the change in start times are being negated by the stress and anxiety thousands of students are experiencing every day as they worry if their bus will arrive, if it does, how late it will be, and how much instruction will they have missed, and will there be a bus to bring them home,” Hummer said.
Hummer knows some students don’t have alternative transportation and will miss school as a result, she said.
Annapolis community advocate Toni Strong-Pratt said students without access to alternative transportation are staying home. And in households where an alternative can be afforded, it is often at the cost of other bills, such as rent, she said.
“A lot of them are taking time off from work and some of them have gotten fired,” she said.
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Another public speaker, Lisa Van Buskirk, said the board should not go back to previous starting hours. Through Start School Later, Buskirk has advocated for the new hours, which meet the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics to ensure students get enough sleep.
She said she has heard that the new times have been a positive in the classroom.
“To do better means we cannot regress to the previous school hours,” she said.
[ As bus routes change, some drivers will miss long-served communities ]
The bus situation is fluid, and as contractors hire drivers, they also must contend with workers quitting. Chief Operating Officer Alex Szachnowicz said last week the system had 67 driver vacancies. The school system added three drivers last week, but 11 quit, leaving 75 vacancies this week.
Traffic around schools has been exacerbated by the issue, as more parents bring their kids to buildings given uncertain bus service. Superintendent Mark Bedell said he experienced some traffic in North Anne Arundel County as he was touring buildings last week. He said he is working with his team to mitigate some of the issues related to transportation, and that he understands this is an issue that is affecting people’s livelihoods.
He has asked the public to make sure not to take out their frustrations on the drivers who are working. He said they can be frustrated with him instead.
“I get the frustration, but you can’t go onto the buses threatening bus drivers, because people will quit because they don’t have to put up with it, and then we’re in a deeper hole,” he said.