— When parents envisioned school starting again this fall, they likely pictured their children learning new skills and reconnecting with friends. They likely did not imagine that the seemingly simple act of getting their children to and from school could become a nightmare. Yet that has been the reality for many families, as bus driver shortages have swept the country. Some children arrive at bus stops as early as 6 a.m., not knowing when — or if — their bus will arrive. Others remain in school for hours after the dismissal bell. Indeed, counties across Maryland report having trouble finding enough drivers to meet demand. In Baltimore, approximately 300 students were stranded on the first day of school when the city didn’t have enough drivers. This is not a temporary problem, but rather a symptom of a larger one: Our school transportation system is broken.
This is a critical issue. Without reliable transportation, students are robbed of access to educational opportunities. The logistics of travel to and from school influence a student’s attendance, tardiness and availability to participate in extracurricular activities — all of which directly correlate to graduation rates. Sadly, the kids who are already the most at-risk of falling behind, especially those who are homeless or in foster care, are also the most likely to suffer from a lack of transportation.
For too long, we have accepted the yellow school bus as the only acceptable vehicle to transport our kids to school. Yet, districts create fixed bus routes at the beginning of the school year and often don’t track how many students are actually taking each bus. This makes it difficult to adjust routing throughout the school year to accommodate new students, changes to a child’s living arrangement or specialized services, or extracurricular programs. Before the bus driver shortage, these problems were largely hidden because buses were often used to pick up just a few kids, no matter how expensive or inefficient that was. Now, without enough drivers to staff even the regular routes, the Band-Aid has been ripped, and we see the actual problem is the inflexibility and inefficiency of this outdated model.
The silver lining to this transportation crisis is that innovative and permanent solutions exist. Many states have taken promising steps by allowing for multiple transportation options to get students to school, including using alternative vehicles like vans, offering students free access to public transit and using taxicabs. More than 20 states permit school districts to contract with transportation network companies (TNCs) specifically designed for children, which offer data-driven, flexible, reliable, scalable services that can be far less costly. These companies have added safety features specifically designed with the needs of youth in mind, have been around for many years, and have established stellar track records for safety and reliability.
Earlier this year, Maryland took a positive step with the passage of a new law that was intended to give school districts more flexibility to adopt alternative transportation options for students, pending regulations put forth by the Maryland State Department of Education. We got our first glimpse of the draft regulations on Aug. 24 — and the news is not good.
The proposed vehicle and driver standards would effectively prevent Maryland school districts from being able to adopt innovative solutions to solve the bus driver shortage. Among many problems, the regulations would require drivers of passenger vehicles, like those used by TNCs, to turn their personal vehicles into mini school buses, with requirements that include “audible backup warning alarms, installed behind the rear axle.” This makes sense on a 55-foot bus, but not on a Prius Hybrid. Worse still, the regulations mandate that all vehicles have the school district’s name lettered on both sides of the vehicle. Beyond not serving any useful purpose, large lettering on passenger cars could easily be copied by persons who wish to harm children, potentially putting them in danger.
There is still hope that we can get this right. The proposed regulations will have an upcoming public comment period and won’t be finalized until after a thorough review of feedback received. The end product must provide school districts with flexibility to solve the transportation crisis, while ensuring the highest safety standards. Families across Maryland are depending on the state to support alternative student transportation — they have been through enough over the past 18 months. Concerns about the ability to get to school should not be another burden for them to bear.
Joanna McFarland (Twitter: @jomcfarland) is CEO and Co-Founder of HopSkipDrive in Los Angeles, California.