Missed stops, crowded vehicles, and confusing schedules are all a product of the shortage
The weeks after winter break were tense. The rise of the new Omicron variant, positive cases, and vacation travel forced Montgomery County to make difficult decisions about how to proceed. However, after making the choice for schools to remain in-person (with the exception of a few elementary schools), they were faced with a new challenge: a shortage of bus drivers.
On Wednesday, Jan. 5, after a two-hour delay due to inclement weather, 92 bus routes were canceled after drivers “called out unexpectedly,” per district spokesperson Chris Cram. MCPS made the announcement at around 8:45 a.m., when many students were already waiting in the cold for their buses to arrive. According to Cram, approximately 300 drivers called out with “no indication” of this being part of any kind of planned protest or strike.
All bus routes in Olney were canceled, which transport many students who attend magnet programs at Blair, Takoma Park Middle School, and Eastern Middle School. These problems persisted in the afternoon, as many routes were still unserviced. A Blair announcement on Jan. 5 recommended that students ask parents to pick them up or take Ride On home.
Sophomore and CAP student Rachael Wong was lucky to have family to get her home when her bus route, 6994, was canceled. Wong, who lives about thirty minutes away, also has a cousin who rides the same bus. Like many other Blair students, her cousin has parents who are working and can’t pick him up after school, making it even more difficult when routes are canceled. “[My cousin] has to get rides with me a lot of the time because his parents are working. I’m glad I have family to pick me up, but some people I’ve heard are not as lucky,” Wong says.
On Jan. 11, Montgomery County’s Assistant Chief Administration Officer, Dr. Earl Stoddard, told the County Council that MCPS was looking to the National Guard to provide bus drivers, which was an unexpected strategy. In the meeting, Stoddard stressed the severity of the situation. "We’re asking the National Guard to provide bus drivers. I want to let that sink in for people. That is not something we would do under normal circumstances… My understanding is the National Guard may not be able to help," Stoddard said.
For those with family or friends who are unable to pick them up, public transportation is the only option. Unfortunately, both Ride On and Metro buses have been plagued with the same shortages as Montgomery County school buses.
Effective mid-January, Ride On reduced service on about half of its routes due to shortages of drivers, many of whom were absent due to exposure to COVID-19. The service will be operating at about 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Dan Hibbert, Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) Chief of Transit. “We just don’t have the drivers available to maintain our current schedule and be dependable,” Hibbert says.
On Feb. 7, Metro’s weekday bus services returned to near-normal after a spike of COVID-19 cases caused about 10 percent of employees to call out of work, a similar predicament to Ride Ons. Many D.C. parents struggled with the reduced Metro schedule as students couldn’t make it to school or were left stranded waiting for buses to pick them up.
Ride On and Metrobus plan on reevaluating these changes in the coming weeks, with hopes that drivers will return and that there will be new hires now that Omicron is less of an issue. MCPS is also working on returning to pre-pandemic levels of service, but they aren’t quite there yet, to the dismay of many students.
Wong’s bus has been coming again, but it’s not nearly as reliable as it once was. As other bus drivers are still out, those that remain have to pick up the slack. The bus is often late or Wong has a substitute driver. “[My bus driver] always talks about how she has to cover for other bus routes,” Wong says.
Occasionally, when drivers are sick or unable to come to work, routes are combined, often resulting in confusion and chaos. On some rides, students have had to stand due to overcrowding from merging bus routes.
Sophomore Blain Sirak rode the bus to school before winter break but afterward decided it was more trouble than it was worth. “The buses are so crowded anyway and I didn’t know which one to take… When I came back from winter break, the bus was just gone and from then on, I stopped taking it,” Sirak says.
With the Omicron variant loosening its hold and the return of warmer weather, students should see improvement in the quality of bus service within MCPS. Luckily, many students have been able to return to their normal transportation schedules. According to Peter Ostrander, who works on coordinating transportation at Blair, all buses are currently running at Blair.
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