By Alexis Taylor, Special to the AFRO
The school bus driver shortage sweeping the nation gave way to tense operations in Baltimore County this week.
Parents and guardians woke up to an alarming email over the weekend, warning that “Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) bus drivers and bus attendants may organize a ‘call out’ that will impact school bus service” this week.
The threat was not futile.
A total of 89 school bus drivers called out on November 12, prompting the warning letter.
Their efforts to bring awareness to school bus driver work conditions and contracts continued this week.
“We had 77 drivers call-out on Monday, compared to 89 on Friday,” said BCPS Communications Specialist, Charles Herndon. “We had 49 drivers call out today , a significant improvement over Friday and Monday.”
According to Herndon, BCPS bus drivers have roughly 650 routes that transport students back and forth to school from their designated pick up locations.
The network is run each day with pride, but morale is low and patience has worn thin.
Overwhelmed bus drivers say the job has become increasingly arduous with demands that do not match the pay – fueled in part by the gaping hole in their workforce.
As of this week, BCPS reported 138 vacancies amongst their transportation staff. This leaves workers like Theresa Huntington doing the work of multiple staff members.
“I am a bus driver, but I’m a routing assistant,” said Huntington. “My first job is to be in the office and get all the routes together, but I’ve been driving every day because of a lack of drivers.”
Huntington clocks in each day at 5:15 am to begin triaging and communicating transportation issues as they are reported.
“We have drivers that we already know are out due to long-term illness, doctor’s appointments or if they call in sick. I have to print out their routes and we try to cover them.”
Normally, the person in Huntington’s position ensures that students with IEPs and special needs get the transportation service they require by law. Those duties have not disappeared, leaving Huntington to cover routes with missing drivers and handle office expectations.
After completing office tasks to the best of her abilities, Huntington then gets on the road to do her part in connecting the County’s more than 85,000 students to educational opportunities in the classroom.
“On our bus lot we have over 80 to 90 buses and each one of those buses does three to four runs in the morning, maybe two runs mid-day for pre-k and another three to four or five routes in the afternoon.”
“Yesterday I dropped off the last kid around 6 pm because I’m covering this and covering that,” said Huntington. “My husband says ‘You’re not getting home until 6:30 or 7pm,’ but my job is to get all these kids home.”
To make matters worse, as bus drivers are scrambling to cover routes they are berated by parents and community members all along the way, upset by the delays and uncovered routes.
“They’re calling our secretary and just screaming and yelling,” said Huntington. “We understand they’re missing work because they have to get their kids to school or they have to get their kid home. Some parents are great about it and other parents are just horrible.”
Last week, BCPS Superintendent Dr. Darryl L. Williams, Board of Education Chair Makeda Scott and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski unveiled plans to address the shortage and retention of current employees.
“BCPS is offering cash rewards for perfect attendance each month, a sign-on bonus, an employee referral benefit, a $1,000 retention bonus and leave conversion during winter and spring break,” according to a statement released by BCPS. “All bus operators and attendants will also receive a $2 an hour shift differential to compensate for additional routes staff have covered during the shortage. This shift differential also applies to overtime hours.”
The $5.2 million package was approved by the Board of Education of Baltimore County, Nov.9, and will be paid for in part by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSR), passed last year to offset the burden of the pandemic on schools.
Though drivers are skeptical of what it will look like after taxes, the new retention efforts also include “at least $3,400 in additional compensation for bus operators and attendants” and a two percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) for employees with benefits and a 40-hour a week schedule. Drivers have also been promised an extra $2 for any extra routes they drive.
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