HOWARD COUNTY, Md. — It’s the final weekend before the kids head back to school in Howard County.
It’s been an enormous hurdle to staff every position because of the uncertainties of the pandemic.
Mike Thomas has been a Howard County bus driver for 6 years.
He’s coming back this year--but a lot of his fellow drivers aren’t.
“The main thing that I’m worried about is not being able to get kids to keep their mask on,” said Thomas. “Not being able to space the kids out because the runs will be full, we will have all the kids.”
The drivers work for private contractors and not the school district.
Howard County moves around 50,000 students on an average school day.
They are fully staffed when they have 467 drivers to fill routes.
Howard County Public Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano says they currently they have 93 bus driver vacancies which is 20% of the overall work force.
“The biggest thing is the acknowledgment that we have a concern and doing everything that we can to recruit,” said Martirano. “We put an incredible recruitment effort out there.”
You can see it driving around— advertisements for sign on bonuses and starting salaries that are above the national average.
Right now, the district is depending on double runs where drivers drop off one group of students and double back and pick up the next group.
Thomas says he’s not surprised that retaining drivers is so difficult given the wages and the added stresses of the staffing shortage and pandemic.
“I’ve seen a lot of them who have left for other jobs or are just not coming back,” Martirano. “That’s because Howard County doesn’t offer the benefits. Some of the contractors do offer benefits but some of them don’t. Anytime someone needs a sick day they can’t get a sick day because we don’t have enough drivers to go around.”
By law, the district is required to provide transportation for every student— even if they only take the bus once a year.
“There are some things I’m interested in nationwide where there have been some other offerings, some financial offerings to parents that would exempt them from transportation and than you’re able to consolidate bus routes,” Martirano. “We have just begun to look at that and there’s a lot of complexities to that.”
It’s not just school bus drivers, there is also a massive shortage of school bus attendants.”
“Everything I’m talking to you about is not just Germane to bus drivers,” Martirano. “It’s consistent with our assistants, with our food service workers, all of my positions across the school system have been more challenged during COVID.”
The drivers get up early and will face more bumps than usual on the road— but the reward is the connections built with our future.
“Without that transportation and bus drivers to do that the educational process for our children isn’t accomplished which is our high morale imperative to ensure our children are safe and educated.”
Everyone is hoping for a smooth ride—despite the pandemic setbacks.
If you are looking for a job transporting the kids we have a link for you here.