Anne Arundel Co. superintendent addresses bus driver shortages with county delegation

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

In the wake of bus driver shortages and student violence in Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Superintendent George Arlotto spoke with lawmakers Tuesday morning about efforts to provide enough bus transportation and to continue remote learning for students who are in quarantine or unable to get to school.

The transportation problem and the rocky transition to online learning for quarantined and stuck-at-home students prompted the county delegation to request an online meeting with the county school superintendent, said Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), chair of the Anne Arundel County Senate Delegation, in an interview.

“Given the return of our students to in-person learning, transportation resource deficits, and brawling in schools, the Senate Chair and I thought it was prudent to have a public briefing with Dr. Arlotto and staff and for our members to engage with them,” Del. J. Sandy Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel), chair of Anne Arundel County’s House delegation, said in an email.

Anne Arundel County Public Schools is about 60 bus drivers short, which is a 9% shortage, Arlotto told lawmakers. But he said the number fluctuates and some bus drivers have been absent because they are in COVID-19 quarantine or on sick leave.

The county’s driver shortage matches the trend in schools across the nation, as most school districts are facing about a 10-15% shortage in drivers now, said Alex Szachnowicz, chief operating officer for Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS).

For instance, Howard County needs 90 more school bus drivers, Baltimore County needs 80 more and Prince George’s County needs more than 130 bus drivers, Szachnowicz said.

“This has been just an incredibly difficult process for us to go through,” Arlotto said.

“There is no easy answer to the transportation issue,” he continued. “The bottom line is — we need drivers.”

County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) has been working with AACPS and put forward a proposal to fund a compensation increase for bus drivers Szachnowicz said.

On Monday evening, an emergency bill was introduced by County Council Chair Sarah Lacey (D), which would transfer more than $7.4 million to the county Board of Education to address bus driver shortages. The bill is slated to be voted on in November.

The city of Annapolis and the county government have expanded service to students by municipal bus fleets, which waive fees for students, Szachnowicz said.

The Motor Vehicle Administration opened five commercial driver’s license testing sites across the state last weekend, at which only five of the 11 drivers who tested passed, Szachnowicz said.

AACPS has also consolidated bus routes, allowing the school district to operate with seven fewer bus drivers, Szachnowicz said.

“It’s really a little bit of a … two steps forward and one step back,” Szachnowicz said.

Although the school district was expecting a shortage of bus drivers because of nationwide trends, it was hard to know how many drivers were available until just a few days before the school year started since most drivers work for 15 different transportation companies rather than directly with AACPS, Arlotto said.

Bus drivers do not return to work until a day or two before the school year begins, when test runs and bus inspections happen, Arlotto said. After the summer break, there is no incentive for bus drivers to let their boss know that they are not going to return, he said.

Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel) asked how much advance notice the school system gives parents about whether their child will have bus transportation. The school system notifies parents between 8:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. the evening before the next school day, Szachnowicz said. Then the next morning, depending on when bus drivers arrive to work, AACPS sends out additional notifications to parents between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. about which bus routes will and will not be operating to which schools, he continued.

Reilly also asked what happened to the “children who were stranded at home” due to the lack of transportation.

It is up to the students’ teacher to keep those students “in the loop” for the day of instruction missed, said Maureen McMahon, deputy superintendent of AACPS. In addition, Parent Teacher Associations (PTA) have organized formal and informal carpooling, she said. And if a parent still has a problem, they should work with the principal at their child’s school, said Monique Jackson, regional assistant superintendent of AACPS.

However, AACPS is required by law to provide transportation to special education and homeless students, Arlotto said.

While trying to cope with fewer drivers to transport students, Anne Arundel public schools also have been dealing with more student violence.

Last month, seven students were arrested and two were hospitalized after fights at Annapolis High School. And on Monday, a 14-year-old boy was cited for having a weapon in Old Mill High School, which sent the high school and its two middle schools into a lockdown.

“I felt like we could see it coming, to some degree,” Bartlett said. “We knew that Anne Arundel County Public School system had a very high arrest rate … so this is something that we were aware of.”

“While we were looking at the pandemic as a very serious issue … it seems that perhaps we missed the actual student,” she said.

Bartlett also mentioned legislation introduced this year that would have prevented school resource officers from arresting and searching students except in a situation involving “serious bodily injury with an imminent threat of serious harm.” That bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

Del. Shaneka Henson (D-Anne Arundel) noted that Annapolis High School, with more than 2,000 students, only has one assigned social worker.

Jackson said that the school system also partners with outside behavioral health services to provide students support and that Annapolis High School has a counseling staff.

From the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the school district also expects an expansion of community schools, which provide wraparound services — including for academic, health and nutritional needs — in high-poverty areas, Jackson said. AACPS has 12 community schools now and expects to have around 30 over the next five years, Arlotto said.

To avoid the “first week of school kind of chaos” from the bus driver shortages, Elfreth suggested the school system and bus contractors should work with one another during the summer, to get ahead of potential challenges well before the school year begins.

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