Magnet busing controversies leave RM students stranded


Photo Courtesy of Ben Schumin via Creative Commons

At the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, MCPS experienced a county-wide staff shortage, in which bus drivers resigned due to health concerns, retirements, and lack of adequate staff.

With the emergence of the omicron variant following winter break, coronavirus cases around the world experienced a surge in numbers. MCPS students returned to school the week of January 2, in which dozens of bus routes went out of service as a result of a shortage in bus drivers. According to a community message sent out to Montgomery County families, 75 of 1228 morning bus routes and 82 out of 1228 afternoon bus routes were affected by these staffing issues. 

Bus operator shortages aren’t a new concept in this pandemic-stricken school year. MCPS experienced a county-wide staff shortage at the beginning of the year, which can be attributed to driver resignations due to health concerns, retirements, and a failure to recruit enough staff to replace the positions left by old drivers. During the fall, this resulted in reduced bus capacity and  “doubling back”, a process in which some drivers had to resort to running routes twice in order to pick up or drop off every student. 

Students who usually ride these impacted routes were required to find other methods of being transported to and from school. MCPS has encouraged families to organize carpools to arrive at school, but those who cannot find an alternate method are to be given excused absences. Not only does this affect students, but their families as well.

In a public forum, MCPS parents voiced concerns about bus staffing shortages. Increased car traffic resulting in parents dropping their kids to school can lead to delays and potential accidents. Additionally, parents recommended prioritizing bus routes to less privileged communities, as students from these areas may have a more difficult time getting rides, as well as those who live further away from school. 

“Kids who live the furthest away and those who live in low income neighborhoods need the buses the most, so if it comes to an issue of reapportioning drivers, it’s important, especially for magnet schools, that you get the kids who live far away to school so they can keep learning,” junior Maya Ramamurthi said. 

This is an issue that magnet schools, such as Richard Montgomery, are required to address. Students who are in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program often live outside of the RM school boundaries, and thus may take longer to arrive at their destinations. Driver shortages on magnet routes could delay their lengths by a more significant margin and potentially lead students to drive to school on their own, a consequence that occurred earlier in the year and caused traffic congestion around the campus. 

In an attempt to temporarily support the public school transportation system, Montgomery County officials requested the Maryland National Guard to provide 200 bus drivers to service. However, the Guard had already mobilized 1,000 troops to assist health officials around the state following the issuance of a 30 day state-of- emergency.

Due to the limited resources of the National Guard, the county then turned to the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MDEM). The request for bus drivers extended to resources across the state, but because other counties experienced the same issues, it was likely that the MDEM took time in providing assistance. 

County efforts to resolve the shortage of bus drivers include hiring new bus operators to service the impacted bus routes. The Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) has posted an online application for those considering becoming bus operators. The MCDOT will screen applicants and provide paid training to applicants until they earn the  Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) required to become a certified MCPS driver.

Furthermore, according to the community update released on January 9, MCPS is trying to implement short term solutions by having available bus drivers service multiple bus routes for one school, and using extra transportation staff and supervisors to take the place of sick operators. 

“I think the problem first and foremost are the bad working conditions and wages of bus drivers, which is part of the reason we have this problem in the first place,” Ramamurthi said. “The county should definitely work with unions to give bus drivers better pay and more benefits so that they come to work or give advanced notice when they can’t so that arrangements can be made and people can get to school.” 

Although driver shortages have decreased since winter break, MCPS will continue to provide daily updates concerning affected bus routes on the homepage of the county website.