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Bus driver shortage, lack of air conditioning hinder return to school for Baltimore students

Problems caused by bus driver absences and a lack of adequate air conditioning interrupted the first day of school Monday for hundreds of Baltimore City students, some of whom were returning to the classroom for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baltimore City was one of 11 school systems in Maryland to welcome kids back Monday. More than 77,000 students were enrolled in city public schools during the 2020-21 school year. Some students have not seen the inside of a school for nearly a year and a half because of the pandemic.

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About 30 bus drivers for the city school system called out of work Monday morning, leaving approximately 300 students stranded on the first day of the fall semester.

The city school system uses outside contractors to provide transportation services for about 3,800 students, about 8% of whom were affected by the callouts, spokesman André Riley said. A reason for the callouts wasn’t immediately clear, according to system officials.

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The absences came from multiple vendors and some district employees, according to the school system. School officials were contacting the affected students Monday and asked contractors to do the same, Riley said.

“We’re working hard,” Riley said of the issue. “It’s still a great first day of school. We’re going to work hard to resolve this and get everyone back on track.”

The city school system also grappled with hot late August temperatures and a lack of adequate air conditioning in some buildings.

Students at 24 city schools were dismissed early Monday because of the buildings’ lack of air conditioning. Officials said 21 schools — nearly 13% of all city schools — do not have air conditioning units, and three more have units that need repair.

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School system leaders “understand the concerns and frustrations of families” related to air conditioning, officials said in a statement. When city schools CEO Sonja Santelises stepped into her role as head of the system, there were 76 schools that lacked air conditioning.

School officials allow early dismissal when the temperature in a majority of classrooms reaches 85 degrees or higher, and students cannot be relocated to cooler areas, according to the statement.

Teacher Rihab Rishak talks to her kindergarten students in the Arabic language immersion program at Baltimore International Academy East on the first day of school.
Teacher Rihab Rishak talks to her kindergarten students in the Arabic language immersion program at Baltimore International Academy East on the first day of school. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

At noon Monday, Johnston Square Elementary School students already were saying goodbye to classmates and being shuffled home by parents and family members due to extremely hot temperatures and the school’s lack of air conditioning.

“Not only did they have a whole summer to install air conditioning, they had a year-and-a-half,” Tonya Bond said while waiting in line to pick her kids up in the Johnston Square neighborhood.

Bond said she had to leave her shift as a warehouse coordinator early to pick up her children Respect, a second grader, and Conscience, a third grader.

While both her kids were excited for their first day, Bond worries about the school’s lack of air conditioning as well as the unknowns that come with the persisting coronavirus pandemic.

“They wanted to jump out the door,” Bond said. “I would rather them be home.”

In other places around the city, a joyful return to classrooms managed to eclipse the system’s logistical troubles. For the first time in two years, helium balloons hung outside the doors at Armistead Gardens Elementary School, celebrating the return of more than 800 kids to in-person instruction.

In Erin Ruiz’s sixth grade math class at Armistead Gardens Elementary/Middle School, kids decked out in rainbow and multi-patterned masks practiced math on pizza-themed worksheets.

”I am super excited,” Ruiz said about the first day back. “It definitely felt incomplete last year not seeing students in person. I could feel their nerves, but I can tell they’re happy too.”

The school, like many throughout the state, went entirely online at the start of the pandemic, slowly transitioning to hybrid teaching last school year before moving to in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year.

”It’s a relief to see our babies after a year and a half,” said Cera Doering, principal of Armistead Gardens.

With the return to in-person learning, Armistead Gardens is at 180% of its physical capacity, a factor that has raised concerns about COVID safety, especially with most students being too young to be vaccinated.

Although the school saw a 92% attendance rate throughout 2020 and late 2021, Doering said the isolation and struggles of virtual and hybrid learning took a toll on both students and teachers.

On top of masking requirements, Doering said the school has air filtration systems in all of its classroom, and has divided classrooms into cohorts of students who are assigned to sit together in class and eat together at lunch.

”We’re doing the best we can do,” Doering said.

Baltimore and Howard county school systems also welcomed students back to buildings Monday. The systems have adopted a variety of COVID mitigation tactics such as mandatory vaccinations or weekly testing for employees.

And masking is set to be required in all Maryland public schools thanks to a mandate passed by the Maryland State Board of Education last week. A special legislative committee still must approve the mandate.

Despite the challenges of safety protocols, state schools superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said he is not concerned about COVID cases putting the academic year in jeopardy.

”There are going to be positive cases, but our ... superintendents will do everything to keep people safe,” Choudhury said. “I do not see a scenario where we have to close down a single school in the state of Maryland.”

At Baltimore County’s Loch Raven High School, principal Janine Holmes said she does not know the vaccination rate among students, but she is confident about returning to in-person learning.

”It’s amazing. They are why we do what we do,” Holmes said about the first day back. “We’ve had a pandemic and a ransomware attack. It’s just about preparing them to be back and feel safe.”

Howard County mom Kimberly Ford, who has two daughters — Ashley, 15, and Emily, 12 — in 10th grade at Glenelg High School and seventh grade at Glenwood Middle School, respectively, said she is excited for the start of school.

“I attended back-to-school night at Glenelg, and the entire staff and every teacher that I saw talked about how happy they were to be back in the building and how excited they were to see the kids’ faces,” said Ford, of Cooksville.

“There’s always the risk that someone’s going to get sick,” she said, “but I think sometimes the solution to keeping us safe is worse than actually taking the risk [of] having them in school in person.”

Baltimore Sun Media reporter Allana Haynes contributed to this article.

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