MCPS bus delays, cancellations to continue through end of school year

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Photo courtesy MCPS Department of Transportation

As the school district struggles with driver shortages, it is working to minimize route cancellations by encouraging drivers to cover other routes after finishing their own — a strategy that results in delays, but avoids cancellations.

By Harper Barnowski

Delays and cancellations on MCPS bus routes that have left some students without transportation to school will persist for the remainder of the school year, MCPS Department of Transportation (DOT) Director Gregory Salois told The Black & White.

As the school district struggles with driver shortages, it is working to minimize route cancellations by encouraging drivers to cover other routes after finishing their own — a strategy that results in delays, but avoids cancellations. As of October, MCPS has canceled 114 bus routes this school year.

According to Salois, MCPS is short 33 drivers but is able to cover the school system’s 1,230 daily routes because managers, route supervisors and mechanics are filling vacancies. MCPS is actively hiring additional bus drivers, providing drivers with a $25 bonus for each extra route they cover and replacing its communication system as part of its efforts to mitigate the effects of the shortages, he said.

Delays and cancellations in the school district come amidst a nationwide bus driver shortage, with 88% of school transportation professionals reporting that the lack of drivers has constrained their operations. MCPS also faced shortages last January due to  a surge in COVID-19 cases among staff.

For Junior Samantha Villavicencio, the shortages are disruptive to her daily routine and cause unnecessary stress in the morning, she said. MCPS has delayed her route twice.

“It’s annoying when the bus doesn’t come because it disrupts my morning,” Villavicencio said. “I get stressed about how I’m going to get to school, and if I’ll have to ask my parents and disrupt their morning by taking me.”

MCPS is required by law to provide specialized bus services to certain students with Individualized Education Plans (IEP) that contain transportation accommodations. Since the routes cannot operate without a driver and at least one attendant, MCPS must reassign bus drivers to to serve as substitute attendants on special education routes when the position remains unfilled.

Villavicencio rides bus 1419, which experienced a delay during the week of Oct. 17—21. She said that she didn’t know if the bus was coming until it arrived 30 minutes late with a substitute driver; administrators gave her an unexcused tardy upon her arrival at school, she added.

“I was a little annoyed and stressed because I didn’t know how I was going to get to school on time,” Villavicencio said. “I had to try to think of other ways.”

Villavicencio’s mother, Lynne Baum, didn’t know if the bus was coming until she called Whitman’s main office, which subsequently contacted the MCPS bus depot.

“This year our bus has been mostly reliable and on time, so I was surprised when the bus was so late,” Baum said. “I called Whitman, and they called the bus depot and informed me the bus was running 20 minutes late but on its way.”

Salois attributes situations like Villavicencio’s to the “poor” communication system MCPS uses to coordinate route cancellations, he said. Depot managers must identify the routes they can’t cover and input those route numbers into an online database by 6:05 a.m. Then, school district officials call and email parents through Blackboard Connect — an automated mass notification system — to notify them that MCPS has canceled their child’s route. The district can’t retract these notifications once officials send them out, even if DOT can find coverage for a particular route, Salois said. For example, on Oct. 21, MCPS ended up finding coverage for a canceled routes, but some students had already left for school through other means of transportation.

“It’s a very poor communication system right now,” Salois said. “We never needed this system, so we never upgraded it like other districts have.”

The Department is currently implementing a new system that would address these concerns, but obtaining approval from the Board of Education could take months, according to Salois.

For students who rode  bus 1414 on Nov. 4, the lack of communication about the delays was especially frustrating and caused them to worry about whether the bus was coming at all, one sophomore said. The student said that they wouldn’t have been able to secure a ride home with their parents if the bus hadn’t arrived. MCPS had canceled the same bus route in late October.

“I was frustrated when the bus was late because the announcements hadn’t said anything,” the sophomore said. “Both of my parents work, so there’s no guarantee that either of them would be able to come get me. It’s almost an hour walk from Whitman to my house, so if I couldn’t get a ride home, it would be really inconvenient.”

The school district has taken steps to address the mounting driver shortage in recent weeks. In a Nov. 16 letter to community members, Superintendent Monifa McKnight announced several changes to the transportation system, which included a $25 pay bonus in the morning and afternoon for drivers who cover extra routes, and the establishment of a “Sweeper Bus” program, which assigns a bus to circulate and pick up students who did receive a cancellation alert in affected areas. Community Engagement Officers will also patrol areas where MCPS has canceled or delayed bus routes and coordinate with DOT to send a “Sweeper Bus” for these students, McKnight wrote.

Some students — particularly elementary school students — can’t attend school if MCPS cancels their routes, especially if they live in heavily wooded areas, Salois said. The bus cancellations have heavily impacted students at schools near the West Farm bus depot in Silver Spring. Drivers take students to the Blair, Springbrook, Blake and Paint Branch clusters, in which larger proportions of students are eligible for the Free And Reduced Meals program. Certain buses in these areas are essential for students who exclusively rely on breakfast and lunch at school as their only meals of the day, Salois said. DOT tries to cancel routes at different depots and assign those drivers to the West Farm routes to mitigate the impact of shortages on those students, he said.

“When you have Damascus and Clarksburg, and schools like that, if the bus doesn’t bring the kid to school and the parents aren’t there, they can’t walk down a crazy little side street,” Salois said.

Villavicencio felt fortunate that her parents could drive her to school if necessary, she said. However, she expressed concern for students who may not have other methods of transportation.

“There are other kids who are in situations where [buses are] their only way to get to school, and to have that disrupted would impact them a lot more,” Villavicencio said. “MCPS should have other options for transportation so that if it comes down to it, people could get on a different bus and be able to come to school.”