Across the county this week, thousands of students saw their bus routes delayed or out of service altogether as multiple transportation contractors for Anne Arundel County Public Schools struggled to find qualified drivers, a trend seen across the nation.
Students riding the bus to school on 16 routes in Annapolis, Edgewater and Arnold were without service on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the first three days of the new, fully in-person school year.
Superintendent George Arlotto sent a letter to families Friday apologizing for the frustration and anger caused by the situation. He said the system did not know the exact routes which would not run until Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning.
“And while it is the responsibility of the contractor, not AACPS, to assign their drivers to routes, we should have known – or insisted on knowing – in more specificity the impacted routes by Tuesday afternoon. That would have allowed us to provide more notice to impacted schools and families and do a better job of allowing them to be in a better position to make adjustments,” he said.
Annapolis Bus Company, a contractor which operates 90 routes for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, is short 15 drivers because of a nationwide shortage of qualified workers that started before the pandemic and was worsened because of it, a spokesperson for Student Transportation of America said in an email Friday. Student Transportation of America, one of the country’s largest school transportation companies, bought Annapolis Bus Company in 2017.
“We are working diligently to improve staffing levels, and encourage anyone interested in joining our team to contact our office at 410-266-0602,” Public and Media Relations Director Jen Holzapfel said.
The company has engaged in a recruitment campaign for more than a year, has candidates in training and will be hiring for the foreseeable future, Holzapfel said.
In addition to Annapolis Bus Company, nine other contractors had shortages this week which caused outages or late school buses, Mosier said in an email. The system works with contractors, not employees, to bring students to and from schools, and different contractors cover pre-designated routes.
A rolling list of which routes have no service or delayed service can be found online at www.aacps.org/buses.
Holzapfel said in an email Friday that Annapolis Bus Company was in constant communication with the school system about staffing challenges during the summer and leading up to the school year.
Mosier said the transportation department has talked about the potential impact of the bus driver shortage since at least last December. School leaders got a sense of the scope of the problem last week, he said.
“We probably should have done a better job of being more acutely aware of the magnitude of it,” Mosier said Friday.
Parents left waiting at the bus stop Wednesday were surprised and Anne Arundel Board of Education President Melissa Ellis said she was too.
“I didn’t know we would have any routes without service,” she said Thursday.
She said all their energy is focused addressing the lack of buses as quickly as possible.
“Every student who is stranded without a bus is a problem,” she said.
Mosier said it is not clear when service will be restored to the 16 routes in Arnold, Annapolis and Edgewater. Schools are reaching out to individually to students who are missing school as a result of the service interruption, Mosier said.
In his letter Friday Arlotto said the system is working on fixes like asking contractors to combine routes and share drivers. The system is also considering reassigning routes to different contractors.
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District 5 Representative Dana Schallheim said Friday that she was not aware of the scale of the issue, and said she thinks had the community known it would have come up with alternatives before Sept. 8. Things like planned carpools, while a Band-Aid, could have been arranged, she said.
“If we had known and had an honest conversation in July or August, we could have rallied,” she said.
District 7 Representative Michelle Corkadel said there is no easy fix for the situation, which has affected other districts in the state. She said they knew at the start of the pandemic drivers were in a fragile situation, and now contractors are competing with other employers as workers with commercial drivers licenses are needed across the transportation sector. It is a difficult time for businesses, she said.
“The companies are doing their best, too. They are all recruiting and doing their due diligence,” she said.
The City of Annapolis is ready to provide two school buses and Annapolis Department of Transportation drivers next week to transport students, Mayor Gavin Buckley’s Chief of Staff Susy Smith said in an email.
In a statement Thursday Buckley said it isn’t the city’s job to fix the issue in the long-term, but hopefully they can help make things easier right now.
“I got word yesterday that Annapolis Police are giving rides to students on a voluntary basis. This is the very meaning of service. We endeavor to fill a need where possible,” he said.
This story has been updated to remove a reference to new school start times. Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said the bus shortage was discussed when talking about start times and the need for more buses.