Baltimore County, like most jurisdictions around the state, started the school year with limited school bus operations. The County has recently made strides toward a return to “normal.” Here’s how it did it.
School districts around the country, including Maryland, continue to face a severe shortage of qualified school bus drivers that is wreaking havoc on schools and families alike. Counties throughout Maryland have enacted various policies to address the issue, including increased pay, simplified and expedited licensing, and hiring fairs.
These challenges even attracted the attention of legislative committees last year, which held a joint hearing on the issue of school bus driver shortages and workforce issues.
The Baltimore County example
Baltimore County has long-faced delays in school bus route and operations — even before the recent influx of challenges to school transportation. Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) transports roughly 77,000 students twice a day on 785 bus routes with about 800 buses.
The County appears to have made strides to its school bus services this school year. The Baltimore Banner reports:
Myriam Yarbrough, the system’s deputy superintendent, told the schoolboard Tuesday night that on average, less than 2% of the bus rides between Sept. 13 and Oct. 10 were delayed. Of the 416 morning delays and the 700 afternoon delays, 64% of each were 30 minutes or less.
Baltimore County leveraged a multi-pronged approach to improve services
The County tackled its school transportation challenges head-on, from multiple fronts:
- Increasing the district’s supply of bus drivers: A major factor of the County’s delay woes is the ongoing shortage of licensed and qualified school bus drivers. The school district started the 2022-2023 school year with 50 fewer drivers than usual. However, since the late August start, the system has hired 30 bus drivers and contracted with another 36 drivers. There are also reportedly 44 drivers in the pre-employment process.
- Removing barriers to employment and beefing up benefits: Prospective school bus drivers in Baltimore County no longer have to pay for fingerprinting, physical exams, drug testing and sleep apnea testing. Additionally, the district now offers health care benefits, paid time off, and wages start at $19.02 per hour. New drivers are also offered a $250 signing bonus, and current employees are also offered $250 if they successfully refer someone for the job. In addition, both drivers and attendants can receive a $1,000 transportation retention bonus.
- Hiring experts: The school system reshuffled leadership in the department that handles school transportation and hired two transportation experts to advise the district on efficiency.
- Engaging with community: School district officials also met with stakeholders — including families — to improve services. Feedback from this engagement resulted in improvements to school-family communications, like reducing delays in communicating better with parents and students about timeliness and bus delays.
- Gauging interest early: According to the Baltimore Banner, “Last school year, some of the county’s public school students would wait as long as an hour for their buses, if they showed at all. Parents would have to drive their kids and their classmates to school. Delays were common in the northeast region.” To improve services this school year, the school system asked parents to register their kids for school bus transportation before the school year started in order to better gauge demand and plan out routes accordingly.
- Leveraging technology: Additionally, an app was piloted at three elementary schools in the school district so that parents could track where their children’s buses were and their estimated arrivals.