By Kate Ryan
Sylvia Imbarlina-Moore of Bowie, Maryland, said her 8-year-old son was excited to ride the bus to his new school, Heather Hills Elementary.
But, since school started Sept. 4, Imbarlina-Moore said the bus showed up just three times.
Some days, she’d wait for more than the 20-minute window recommended by the school system. The bus was supposed to show up at 6:50 a.m.
“After that, we waited a good 30 minutes — and the bus was not showing,” she said.
She’d contacted school officials in the weeks before school, and again on the days when she found herself having to hustle her son off to school herself.
By Sept. 11, she emailed the school transportation department, saying she was “beyond livid” because she’d been late to work after waiting for a bus and then having to get her son to school.
She did get an email from Tony Spruill, an operations supervisor with the Prince George’s County Public Schools’ transportation department. He wrote, “We continue to make daily adjustments to our routes in an effort to get students to school on time. We should have this route fixed by next week.”
Imbarlina-Moore said the lack of specific information — what time the bus would be there, why it was late — was frustrating. She wasn’t alone.
Dr. Rudolph Saunders, director of transportation for Prince George’s County Public Schools, said in the first week of classes, they get thousands of calls — parents asking for information, as well as those complaining about late buses or clarification on the location of bus stops.
“For the first week of school, a number of our buses are going to be late,” Saunders said.
One factor that leads to delays, he said, is the need to check that each student is getting on the right bus to the right school. And, once they get to school, there are checks to make sure the students know where to go.
Saunders said he knows it’s frustrating for parents on tight schedules. “But, we’d rather take a few extra minutes at every stop to make sure we get all the kids on the right bus at the right time.”
He said they don’t want to risk having a child get off a bus in the wrong neighborhood or left at school with no way home.
Another issue is the shortage of available school bus drivers. Right now, Saunders said the county school system has the full complement of regular bus drivers. What’s missing is a full cadre of substitute drivers.
Saunders said the school system could “easily” use 100 more drivers to deal with those times when a regular driver is out sick or on leave.
The school system is recruiting drivers, but Saunders said there’s a lot of competition for qualified bus operators. Holding a commercial driver’s license, he said, “It’s like a license to print money.” That’s how competitive the market is.
The school system holds recruitment fairs throughout the school year; another one is scheduled for Saturday.
Saunders said to deal with the shortage, many drivers double up on routes. And, all of the staff members at the school system’s bus lots hold commercial licenses. “We have to use them sometimes to help cover the runs to make up the gap,” Saunders said.
The app “Here Comes The Bus” is supposed to help parents keep tabs on where the school buses are and how soon they’ll show up.
But Imbarlina-Moore said in checking the app, she’d often see that the bus was far from her home and that “the bus that he’s supposed to be on is on a completely different route — it’s not on his route at all.”
Saunders said the start of the school year always includes some time for drivers and students to settle into the routine and that, sometimes, stops have to be shifted. So, patience is needed.
Imbarlina-Moore said what she needs is more clarity — and communication. “I feel that would really relieve the stress and anxiety that parents feel, especially during a new school year.”
The same concerns were raised via facebook by a PGCPS parent (Maria Gonzales Jackson), She “Wondered if anyone else has noticed that the “Where’s the Bus” app “works” and records pick up and drop off times when the bus is on time or close to being on time. But, when the bus is late, like my daughter’s was by 45 minutes it did not record/show the time. If so, seems like a great way for Prince George’s County Public Schools to “skew the stats” of bus time performance. I called the “Where’s the Bus” tech support and was told if it is working when bus is on time, but not recording when it is late, then someone either remotely or the driver himself/herself is turning their device off. Interesting discovery.”