2022 | Schools

When in-person school resumed in North Chevy Chase, MCPS forgot to tell bus drivers

Parents were notified minutes before start of classes; many couldn’t get their kids to school

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North Chevy Chase Elementary School

via MCPS

This story was updated at 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 20, 2022, to include more background about the schools that returned to in-person classes.

Some families’ excitement over in-person classes resuming for the first time since mid-December was dashed this week when Montgomery County Public Schools forgot to inform their bus routes that they were returning to buildings.

The error left dozens of students without a ride to school minutes before the day was supposed to start.

At 9:15 a.m. on Tuesday, North Chevy Chase Elementary Principal Renee Wallace-Kimbrue sent an email to families saying the “bus depot did not receive the message” that students were returning to buildings that day and “there were no buses scheduled to pick up students.” The school day starts at 9:25 a.m.

“I am so terribly sorry for the late notice and inconvenience but we just found out about the error,” Wallace-Kimbrue wrote.

The school, along with 10 others, were returning to in-person classes for the first time since winter break began on Dec. 23. They moved to virtual classes on Jan. 5 due to high rates of COVID-19 among staff members and students.

When the closures were initially announced, MCPS said they would reopen on Jan. 19. Later, the district changed the return date to Jan. 18.

A handful of bus routes at two of the other returning schools — Rock Terrace School and Roberto Clemente Middle School — were also affected by the “clerical error,” school district spokesman Chris Cram said in an interview on Thursday, but none had the same widespread breakdown.

Cram said the “reporting process” for notifying the transportation department of when schools are returning from virtual classes has been changed. He didn’t elaborate, but said it will prevent the same problems going forward.

“The next 16 schools coming back on the 31st, the buses will be there,” Cram promised.

Two parents with children at North Chevy Chase Elementary told Bethesda Beat on Thursday that Tuesday’s mistake was particularly egregious and frustrating.

The parents, who asked not to be identified, said they don’t fault the school’s principal or the bus drivers, but the consistent lack of clear and timely communication from MCPS leadership is wearing on families’ patience.

And the anxiety and frustration they feel can rub off on their children, too, they said.

The last-minute notice was compounded by the fact that many students can’t safely walk to school because they’d have to cross the busy Connecticut Avenue, parents said.

Many families didn’t feel comfortable carpooling, as suggested in the principal’s message, because of the pandemic.

The problem was resolved by the afternoon dismissal, when bus routes were in service, according to Cram.

Tuesday’s mishap was the latest in a long string of problems with MCPS’ bus service this school year, starting with the first day of classes in August.

On the first day, families across the county reported major delays in their students’ buses, sometimes arriving at school after the academic day began. Sometimes, buses didn’t show up at all.

MCPS had cautioned families for weeks prior that there might be minor delays in routes due to a shortage of about 100 drivers.

The problems largely subsided for a while, but escalated again this month as students returned from winter break.

On the first day back, nearly 100 routes couldn’t operate, again on last-minute notice, because about 70 drivers called out sick.

Dozens of routes have been affected each day since, although the number has dropped.

On Wednesday, the state eased a requirement for getting a commercial driver’s license to drive a school bus. Knowledge of engine parts will not longer be part of a test.

At a school board meeting last week, MCPS leaders said 25 bus driver candidates are nearing the final steps of the hiring process, and more are being trained.

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.

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