As many students in Maryland return to classrooms for the first time in over a year, public school systems throughout the state are struggling to find enough bus drivers to transport them each day.
While driver shortages are not new, school leaders and industry officials say the situation is worse in Maryland and nationwide this year due to factors exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The lack of drivers was quickly made evident this week in Baltimore City, where the school system said about 30 bus drivers called out of work on the first day of school. And while callouts on the first day are somewhat typical, a schools spokeswoman said, an already short staff of available drivers meant hundreds of city students were left without a ride on their first day back in the classroom. In other districts, drivers are doubling up on routes, causing delays in pickup and drop-off times.
Here’s what we know about the driver shortage and what school systems are doing to try to address it.
How bad is the problem?
Most counties in Maryland use external busing contractors to operate their school buses. It’s these contractors, as well as school systems such as Montgomery that directly hire drivers, that are struggling to find enough certified drivers to fill school system schedules.
Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties are missing 10% of the drivers they need to run their daily routes, while Howard reports it is 20% short. Baltimore City has 30% fewer bus drivers than the previous school year, according to Lynette Washington, chief operating officer for the school system.
While Baltimore County typically begins the year with some driver vacancies, the public school system is looking for 87 new drivers, a larger shortage than normal, according to spokesman Charles Herndon.
With about a week left before the school year begins in Harford County, more than 65 bus driver openings needed to be filled — more than a typical year said Cathy Bendis, the school system’s director of transportation.
“We had 35 in class this week so we are working diligently to get them trained and certified,” she said Tuesday. “It will take some time to fill the vacant positions, however we are seeing an increase in applicants.”
Carroll County school officials believe they will have enough drivers to complete their routes when students return Sept. 8, but spokeswoman Carey Gaddis said they are advertising for new drivers on behalf of their busing vendors.
What are schools doing to address shortages?
Baltimore and Howard counties have had to combine bus routes and create schedules where some bus drivers double back to pick up more students after already completing a route.
For many students on these double routes, their pickup and drop-off times have changed by as much as 20 to 30 minutes, meaning more time waiting around at school for classes to start and more time waiting to be taken home.
Darryl Williams, the superintendent of Baltimore County schools, said drivers had to pick up additional routes on the first day of school Monday.
“We need to hire more folks, to be honest, and we have to really look at our benefits and wages,” Williams said.
Bendis, of Harford County schools, said the school system plans to make route adjustments as needed and has been attending job fairs to seek driver applicants.
Many students in Baltimore City take public transit, but elementary school students, students who live far from school, and special needs and homeless students typically rely on yellow school buses.
The city school system is typically able to use taxi drivers to help with transporting kids to and from school when there’s a shortage of bus drivers, but Washington said the capacity limits in cabs and a shortage of certified cab drivers has forced the school system to look for alternative solutions.
Baltimore City has adjusted school start times throughout the city to allow bus drivers to run complete routes for multiple schools, according to Washington.
Washington said the school district is encouraging more students to use school-provided MTA cards and is offering $250 a month to parents of kids who typically ride yellow buses to provide them with alternative transportation.
“We foresaw some of the challenges, we didn’t know it was going to be this much of an impact,” Washington said.
So when Baltimore City schools received multiple callouts on the first day of school, the pool of potential drivers looked vastly different than it did before the pandemic. They didn’t have enough drivers to fill in the canceled shifts.
“It had more of an impact because we started the year out with less drivers than before,” Washington said. “Generally, when we do have a large call out like that, we have alternative drivers to go in and drive those routes.”
What’s causing the shortages?
Many school system leaders attribute higher-than-normal driver vacancies to a nationwide shortage exacerbated by the pandemic, a time when many drivers retired, got other jobs when there was no demand for school bus drivers, or decided to avoid returning to school bus driving due to health concerns.
“It’s something every school system in the state is struggling with,” Bob Mosier, a spokesman for Anne Arundel Public Schools said. “It’s a unique problem caused by a pandemic that resulted in no one getting transported to and from school for a year plus and folks who would otherwise drive buses seeking employment elsewhere to make ends meet.”
And it’s not just a Maryland problem. According to The Associated Press, a March survey conducted by ride-service company HopSkipDrive found that nearly 80% of districts that responded were struggling to fill bus driver positions.
Training potential drivers to get their Commercial Driver’s License, which is required to operate a school bus, also takes time and money, said Steve Nelson, whose Nelson Bus Company contracts with Harford schools.
“For a new driver to come on, you’re looking at almost two months to get them on the road, there’s a lot of things that have to work together,” said Nelson, who is also president of the Maryland School Bus Contractors Association. “With the MVA being behind because of all the stuff they’ve had to do because of COVID, it’s been a real challenge.”
Patricia Sutton, owner of Reliable Professional Services, a busing contractor that provides buses and drivers to public schools in Baltimore City, said that while she has enough drivers to fill her routes, the pandemic has created a two- to three-month wait for future drivers to get an exam appointment. She’s worried the delay will prevent more people from becoming certified bus drivers in an industry that already has a retention problem.
“School bus drivers as an industry has been on the decline for the past 20 years,” Sutton said.
Even before the pandemic, Sutton said she’s seen many school bus drivers opting to instead work as drivers for national companies like Amazon that provide higher pay and more regular hours. The pandemic has only sped up that process.
“Amazon is certainly doing to the school bus industry what Walmart did to mom and pop [businesses],” she said.
Nelson said he hopes parents will be understanding that bus drivers, contractors and the school system are doing the best they can to start the school year. But still, he’s anxious.
I’ve been in business 42 years and this is the first year that I’ve been nervous about the start of school and don’t really know what all is going to take place to be honest with you,” Nelson said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Lillian Reed and Baltimore Sun Media reporter S. Wayne Carter Jr. contributed to this article.