Credit: Caitlynn Peetz

It’s “all hands on deck” for Montgomery County Public Schools to ensure that a bus driver shortage doesn’t affect normal operations with the start of the academic year approaching.

Like school districts across the country, MCPS this year is faced with a shortage of drivers to transport students to and from school. The district is short about 100 drivers to handle its hundreds of daily routes, according to spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala.

The shortage is not expected to affect the start of the school year on Monday, or limit who can use the district’s transportation. Instead, workers who are not usually called on to drive — such as supervisors and depot employees — will be asked to step in until positions are filled.

“Some routes will take on additional routes to make it work, so some students may need to be picked up a little bit earlier or a little bit later, but those details are still being finalized,” Onijala said. “But, basically, a lot of folks who wouldn’t necessarily be driving every day … will need to pick up some routes.”

About 65% of MCPS’ 160,000 students are transported via school bus each day, according to MCPS data. The fleet of about 1,300 buses travels about 112,000 miles every school day.

Districts across the country this year are reporting serious shortages of bus drivers as schools return to in-person learning en masse.

Industry experts say the driver shortage isn’t new, but it has been compounded by COVID-19, because bus operators are, on average, older than 65 and at an increased risk of severe illness if they contract the virus.

A survey conducted by HopSkipDrive, a company that tracks school bus issues, in March showed nearly 80% of school districts that responded said they were struggling to recruit and hire drivers, according to a Time Magazine article.

The Fairfax County school district recently asked parents to walk or drive their children to school due to its driver shortage, and announced $2,000 hiring bonuses. In July, Prince George’s County Public Schools reported needing 200 more bus drivers.

While facing a notable driver shortage, MCPS is better positioned than many other school districts because it did not lay off bus operators at the height of the pandemic when school buildings were closed. Instead, it had drivers do other work. Otherwise, MCPS would likely be facing a more serious problem, school district leaders said.

Last summer, now-retired Superintendent Jack Smith said keeping part-time and service workers employed will ensure the district could operate effectively when schools reopen.

“When we can come back together in a more typical fashion, we need those systems in place that we’ve always counted on to make the school system operate,” Smith said at the time.

The starting pay for MCPS bus drivers is $19.53, according to a sign at the school district’s central office advertising the position. Candidates must be at least 21 years old and have a high school diploma, according to a current job listing.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com