2021 | Schools

MCPS parents frustrated by school bus delays, crowding on first day

District asks for patience as it works to offset shortage of 100 drivers

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Families arrive for classes on the first day of school Monday at Rosemary Hills Elementary School.

Photo by Steve Bohnel

Some Montgomery County Public Schools families’ excitement for the first day of classes was overshadowed on Monday by school bus transportation problems, including extended delays. Some buses didn’t show up to stops at all.

For weeks, MCPS has cautioned families that there might be minor delays in routes as schools reopen, due to a shortage of about 100 drivers for its hundreds of routes.

But on Monday, families across the county reported major delays in their students’ buses, sometimes arriving at school after the academic day began.

Two parents in Bethesda said their children’s bus to Thomas W. Pyle Middle School never arrived at all. Some parents of children enrolled at Silver Spring International Middle School reported the same problem.

Craig Hillman, the president of the parent-teacher association at North Bethesda Middle School, forwarded a photo of the inside of a school bus Monday morning that showed children sitting on the floor in the aisle.

Mara Greengrass, a parent of a student at Argyle Middle School near Aspen Hill, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat that her son’s bus was 42 minutes late on Monday morning. Greengrass said she works from home, so she can drive her son to school some days if problems persist, but it’s “not a long-term solution.”

MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said in an interview Monday morning that the district expected some problems and asked for parents’ patience as officials try to iron them out.

She added that similar problems throughout the first week have been common in past years and are usually resolved quickly.

“We know every school year, not just this year, when we’re reopening for the first time in 18 months for all schools, you start the year with some routes still being figured out and figuring out who’s supposed to be on the bus and who’s not … so there may be some crowding,” Onijala said.

“… As far as delays, we’ve tried to be proactive in letting families know buses would have to combine routes and that could mean an earlier or later pick-up time. We understand how frustrating it can be, but we’re confident we’ll be able to work out those kinks as we move through the first week.”

While MCPS works to fill its vacant bus driver positions, workers who are not usually called on to drive — such as supervisors and depot employees — have been asked to step in on some routes.

Some routes have been consolidated under a single driver, meaning pick-up and drop-off times are expected to be a bit later.

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.

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.

Some districts have begun offering cash payments to families to encourage them to drive their children to school. Others are offering higher pay to new hires.

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.

Other families on Monday said they were concerned about their children riding on the school buses because windows were not open, limiting air circulation in an enclosed space with many children.

MCPS guidelines do not say that windows must be open on school buses, but the district encourages the measure, when the weather allows.

Because Monday was warm — in the 80s by mid-morning — Onijala said it is reasonable that some buses kept their windows closed and relied on the air conditioning.

If it gets too hot in the bus, some students might be more likely to remove their masks to cool down, she said. Students and drivers are required to wear face coverings on the school buses.

“We’re going to do it when the weather permits and it makes sense, but you also have to ensure student comfort,” Onijala said.

Crowded MCPS buses are also not new. In 2019, for example, as the district grappled with rapid enrollment growth, parents across the district sounded the alarms about buses in which students said they sat on classmates’ laps to avoid the floor or opted to stand for the length of their commute.

MCPS guidelines say students are not permitted to stand on buses “except during the first few weeks of the new school year when schedules and routes are being adjusted, or occasionally during the year when breakdowns occur or temporary needs arise.”

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