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Howard County partners with RTA to provide free public transportation to middle and high school students

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced Wednesday a new partnership with the Howard County Public School System and the Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland to address student transportation concerns.

The Howard school system, like many across the nation, is facing a bus driver shortage brought on by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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Despite the efforts of partner organizations across the county to assist bus contractors in attracting more drivers, the school system’s independent contractors only have 80% of the more than 400 drivers necessary to cover all of the routes, which comes out to about 93 vacancies, according to a county schools news release.

To further address this issue, the school system has partnered with the RTA to provide free access to public transportation for county middle and high public school students.

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“One of our priorities is to ensure that all Howard County residents have safe, accessible and reliable public transportation no matter what their age or ability,” Ball said at a news conference outside Long Reach High School in Columbia.

“We know that transportation can be a critical barrier to opportunity, and we continue to work to break down those barriers so that all members in our community can thrive, including our younger residents who are eager to resume after-school activities, volunteer opportunities and after-school jobs at the start of a new year.”

Students can pick up the bus passes at their schools’ administrative offices when classes begin next week, and they will then have free access to the RTA’s fleet of buses until September 2022, Ball said.

In early 2022, Ball said students will be able to download a transit app, allowing them to use a digital bus pass on their mobile device.

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Students will be able to use the RTA buses to travel to and from school, as well as to and from after-school activities, like jobs and volunteering, Ball said.

The RTA has 15 transit routes that travel throughout Howard County, Anne Arundel County, northern Prince George’s County and the city of Laurel. Buses stop at places such as the Greenbelt Metro Station, Howard Community College, The Mall in Columbia and the University of Maryland Laurel Medical Center. Several of the routes will allow more than 10,000 county students to access a stop within a quarter-mile of their school, according to the school system.

“We’re collaborating to make things happen for kids,” schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said. “[This is] equity in action, putting our children at the center of all we do and making certain we do better by our kids.”

To further accommodate the shortage in drivers, school buses will run double routes for some schools, picking up and dropping off students in groups, the news release states.

This will create a larger-than-typical window of time between when the first students are dropped off at school and the time instruction begins. The first group of students will be dropped off at school approximately 30 minutes prior to the arrival time of the second group.

The same process will take place after school with the goal of no more than 30 minutes between the time the first and second groups leave schools.

Students who are at schools and awaiting instruction or bus pickup will be supervised by school system staff, the county said, and the schedules will not impact the number of instructional hours students receive.

Families can access school bus schedules by using the bus stop locator on the school system’s website at hcpss.org.

Ball said the public transportation program will provide students with more options that are accessible and safe.

“Our students need more independent safe modes of transportation, and this program is a great example of our continued commitment to make Howard County more multimodal and our continued commitment to be collaborative and bring partnerships together for our young people,” Ball said.

As announced late last month, the school system is requiring masks be worn in school buildings for all students, staff and visitors regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status. This extends to county school buses, as well as the RTA buses and public transportation, as per the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

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