In its first week of serving the Howard County Public Schools System (HCPSS) in Maryland, contractor Zum announced several challenges that resulted in delayed and canceled routes.
In June, HCPSS announced it awarded a five-year contract to Zum for operating 230 bus routes, 250 buses (including a 10 percent buffer), a parent-facing app, a digital dashboard for district administrators and operations, and providing real-time data reports to the district.
A blog post by Zum, which provided updates on the situation, stated that HCPSS delivered new and modified paper routes to the company on Aug. 26. This, the company added, delayed Zum’s ability to digitize all routes and enter them into the GPS system. The result was some bus drivers had to use printed routes on the first day of school, Aug. 31, causing delays — some bus drivers even got lost.
Additionally, Zum said 20 bus drivers called out of work that day. The company was forced to discontinue service for 20 routes, which were posted on the district website. Affected students had to find their own way to get to and from school. To combat this, Zum said it implemented a $500 per month bonus for any bus driver who goes a month without an absence and a $8,000 sign-on bonus for certified school bus drivers.
And while school bus routes that were running started the day on time, they fell behind as the day and week progressed. This year for the first time, HCPSS also rolled out three different bell schedules for elementary school, middle school, and high school. Zum said it is currently working with HCPSS to resolve the “stacking” issue, explained as one driver being on time in delivering elementary school students but then delivering middle or high school students late.
“We are currently in the midst of a national bus driver shortage,” Zum stated. “Howard County, too, has felt the effects. Since the pandemic, Howard County has experienced a shortage of around 100 school bus drivers. For the last several months, we’ve been working tirelessly to recruit and hire new drivers.”
HCPSS Superintendent Dr. Michael Martirano said in a statement on Aug. 30 that there were errors that could have been avoided the first week of school. However, he is working to address the challenges.
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Namely, bus drivers became lost during their student pick-up and drop-off errors, due to the data and routes provided. Additionally, he noted there were issues with the technology provided to some drivers for routing assistance. For example, bus route information provided to some drivers was inconsistent with what was provided to families and schools. Some of the bus numbers provided to families did not match the vehicles that showed up the first morning, which caused great confusion.
Adequate stress testing was also not conducted on the routes, so potential failures were identified and corrected proactively. Communication with schools and families regarding individual bus route delays was also not done effectively, he added.
To address delays, Martirano said, adjustments are being considered to change start times by no more than 10 minutes and pick-up times so routes can be completed on time. He added that changes will be communicated as soon as they are made.
Additionally, while a vast majority of special education buses had attendants on board, HCPSS stated that Zum did not have the number of necessary attendants to cover all the special ed buses. Because of that, HCPSS school staff are serving as adult support on Zum buses and vans until Zum can hire the staff the district said the company is responsible.
Martirano noted that bus delays of more than 15 minutes will be posted online. As of Thursday, no routes are marked as being delayed. However, three of the 20 routes remained discontinued at this report.