Howard County school buses: Thousands of students stranded without service

Thousands of Howard County public school students were stranded without a yellow bus ride to school for a second day in a row, after a California tech company hired to solve transportation issues struggled to get the kids on its routes to school.

The transportation debacle appeared to surprise school officials who struggled all day to keep up with a cascade of problems on different routes on Monday. Frustrated parents found an email had landed in their inboxes after 11 p.m. canceling bus service for the rest of the week on 20 bus routes. Thirty-five schools are affected by the loss of service, according to an email. Then at 6 a.m. another email suddenly appeared correcting misinformation in the 11 p.m. email.

Superintendent Michael Martirano, who has been in the job since 2017, has not been available for interviews, nor has the public information officer. A Baltimore Banner reporter went to school headquarters to speak to the public information officer, Brian Bassett, and was denied an interview.

The Silicon Valley-based tech company, Zūm, had promised to transform student transportation in Maryland and beyond, with an app that should allow parents to track buses in real time. Under a three-year, $27 million contract to operate nearly half of the district’s school bus routes, the company purchased more than 250 new buses with lots of bells and whistles.

But problems began early on the first day when 200 buses tried to squeeze out of one parking lot at the same time, delaying the routes.

Many buses arrived at neighborhood bus stops 20 to 30 minutes late on the first day of school, some not at all. Parents reported that single buses were carrying students who attended different schools, that drivers appeared not to know the routes, and that children were left to walk home. Buses delivered students home as much as an hour late, or not at all.

Amy Becker, who has children at Clarksville Middle School and Swansfield Elementary School, said that her son’s bus route was one of the 20 in the late Monday night email, but because of the bus number shuffling, it still wasn’t clear whether her neighborhood could expect a school bus or not. The bus came, but it skipped her son’s stop. She saw the bus make a wrong turn on a different street, and then it never came to pick up her son.

”I have no confidence that I can rely on the communication from HCPS and have it actually be accurate,” said Becker. “This is not acceptable. This is really a failure on the part of the school system.”

The email states all students who are absent or tardy due to issues with transportation will be considered excused absences.

“Getting students to and from school safely and reliably is our priority and we apologize to the families and students who have been impacted this week,” a Zum spokeswoman said in an email. The company said it had brought in certified drivers from their other locations across the country to fill in while their new driver recruits got through the state certification process.

They noted a “lag in the certification from the state,” and appeared to blame the county for providing their drivers with “paper routes” on Saturday, just two days before school started. They said they have digitized and uploaded the routes. “Our drivers now have full route information on Zum tablets which includes navigation support. We are working around the clock with the District to ensure that all students have access to transportation services,” the statement said.

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The school system told parents by email that they were trying Tuesday to correct some of the issues from Monday. Administrators said some families’ bus assignments on Monday did not match the number on the side of the bus. To address these discrepancies, buses on Tuesday should have signs in their windows with the correct numbers that align with those found in family files in HCPSS Connect.

School system leaders also said they are asking bus drivers to report to their lots an hour earlier than originally expected.

Parents report widespread confusion and safety concerns

School board president Antonia Watts said the board was told by the superintendent that the system is meeting with school bus contractors “to make sure they fully understand their routes and the expectations.” One option for parents, she said, would be to have older students use public transit. The Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland offers free bus passes to middle and high schoolers in the district.

Watts didn’t point to a culprit for the delays and no-shows but said the system is waiting for data to say “what contractors are specifically struggling to provide the drivers.”

Although Watts acknowledged that delays early in the school year aren’t unusual, this year “is not something we have experienced recently.”

As for communicating with the public, Watts said the school system is trying to push out as much information as possible but without causing confusion.

Becker called the school transportation office yesterday to ask if her kids could expect a bus in the afternoon. She knows that they are probably inundated with calls, but was still disappointed not to get an official answer. “But the secretary told me not to rely on the bus,” she said.

Becker and her neighbors are worried about safety, too. A group of parents followed her middle school daughter’s bus yesterday to make sure it got to school OK — they saw it drive over a grassy median, which her daughter later confirmed for her.

She’s worried about the training drivers have gotten and whether they were adequately prepared to run their assigned routes.

“While the contractor currently has drivers in the training pipeline and is working to address the vacancies,” the school system wrote in an email, “they are asking families who are served by the following routes to make alternative arrangements for your students to get to and from school for the remainder of the week.”

”Good morning, thank you for your patience,” a staffer greeted parents before gently redirecting the cars that tried to make tricky left turns into the parking lot.

One father walked briskly back to his car after drop-off. His child’s bus route was dropped Tuesday morning, he said, but he didn’t have time to talk about the cancelation’s impact because he was “still on the clock” for work.

Thunder Hill parent Nikki English, who serves on the technology and communications committee for the school’s parent-teacher association, said she wasn’t sure whether the organization could do anything about the problems.

“It was really disturbing,” English said of the bus route cancelations and delays. “It’s definitely going to be a struggle.”

For at least 15 minutes after the school’s official start time, vehicles including a white minivan with a Zūm logo trickled into the parking lot to unload youngsters in backpacks.

Ben Schmitt, the county’s teachers union president, was observing the morning arrivals at Mayfield Woods Middle School on Tuesday. Kids were supposed to enter the buildings between 8:30 and 8:35 a.m. But as of 9, there were still four buses that had not arrived, and that’s not including the bus from one of the canceled routes.

”And what made things more interesting, that I have never seen in my 25 years, was a van showed up, and the only thing that I could say to describe what this van looked like … almost like something used by a contractor … dropped off three or four children,” he said.

According to Schmitt, the van had a Zūm sticker plastered on it. He also saw kids get out of an Uber and later heard that Bellow Springs Elementary School informed parents to drive their kids to school for the three buses that didn’t show up until 10 a.m.

Schmitt noted that teachers are also affected by the transportation fiasco. He’s heard from a couple of teachers who stayed late Monday afternoon to wait with the kids with bus delays. Those teachers have families of their own they need to take care of, he added. ”We are making sure that no one is being forced or guilted into staying late,” Schmitt said.

Curt Francisco saw a Zūm bus pull into his North Laurel neighborhood and stop yesterday, so he took it upon himself to walk over and ask the driver if they were driving his fourth grader’s route.

He said that the driver was fumbling through paper maps, and mentioned that they weren’t from the area — Zūm had flown them in from Spokane, Washington to cover a route. Brian Bassett, a school system spokesperson, previously told The Banner that Zum would fly in bus drivers to cover routes if needed.

Bus driver shortages plague the state and nation

School systems around the nation have struggled since the pandemic to deliver students to school when older drivers retired rather than risk COVID-19 and low pay contributing to a shortage of drivers.

Bob Mosier, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County schools, said on the worst day of that crisis, 50 bus routes weren’t covered. In the past two years, the county has given drivers a 20% salary increase, Mosier said, as well as instituted the use of vans instead of school buses to pick up small numbers of children, particularly those with special needs, to deliver them to school. Because those drivers didn’t need the qualifications required to drive a school bus, the practice freed up many bus drivers to take over the traditional bus routes.

School systems in the Baltimore region are also expanding the areas that they require students to walk to school, thus reducing the number of buses they need. Howard cut bus service to roughly 3,500 Howard County students and hired Zūm, to bring more timeliness and consistency to bus operations.

Zum operates yellow buses in a number of major city school systems, including Oakland, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Dallas.

It is not the only tech firm to enter the school transportation market. When Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky hired AlphaRoute to reorganize its bus routes to gain efficiencies, the outcome was disaster. The school system had to close schools for the first week of school to sort out the problems, according to the Associated Press.

The Howard County Executive’s office deflected questions to the school system. Mark Miller, a spokesperson for the Howard County executive’s office, said in a text message that “Howard County Government has no operational control over the school system or the operation of its buses. We are merely a funding source as required by state law. For the past two years, County Executive Ball has provided historic levels of funding to HCPSS. He will defer comment to the Superintendent and School Board.”

The routes that Zum will not be able to cover for Aug. 29 – Sept. 1 are:

  • 1020 – Mt Hebron HS, Patapsco MS, St John’s Lane ES
  • 1023 – Centennial HS, Centennial Lane ES, St John’s Lane ES
  • 1148 – Atholton HS, Cradlerock ES 1161 – Atholton HS, Thunder Hill ES
  • 1163 – Wilde Lake HS, Wilde Lake MS
  • 1165 – Atholton HS, Wilde Lake MS
  • 1168 – Atholton HS, Mayfield Woods MS, Bellows Spring ES
  • 1191 – Long Reach HS, Lake Elkhorn MS, Atholton ES
  • 1078 – Clarksville MS, Pointers Run ES
  • 1090 – Reservoir HS, Hammond MS, Forest Ridge ES
  • 1155 – Oakland Mills HS, Phelps Luck ES, Thunder Hill ES
  • 1201 – Long Reach HS, Phelps Luck ES, Atholton ES
  • 1122 – Patuxent Valley MS, Murray Hill MS
  • 1144 – Atholton HS, Swansfield ES, Waterloo ES
  • 1053 – Dunloggin MS, Burleigh Manor MS, Northfield ES
  • 1176 – Atholton HS, Talbot Springs ES, Waterloo ES
  • 1089 – Hammond HS, Bollman Bridge ES, Gorman Crossing ES
  • 1070 – Hammond HS, Hammond MS, Guilford ES
  • 1173 – Clarksville MS, Pointers Run ES, Swansfield ES
  • 1154 – Wilde Lake HS, Wilde Lake MS, Running Brook ES

This article will be updated.

Daniel Zawodny, Kristen Griffith and Liz Bowie contributed reporting.

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