This story was updated at 2:15 p.m. on Jan. 5, 2022, to include more information and comments from parents. It was updated again at 3:20 p.m. to add additional comments from MCPS.
Hundreds of families were left scrambling on Wednesday when nearly 100 of Montgomery County Public Schools’ bus routes were canceled at the last minute, part of a week characterized by school closures and disruptions.
At about 8:45 a.m., after delaying classes for two hours due to weather, MCPS announced that 92 of its routes would not operate after a large number of drivers “called out unexpectedly,” according to district spokesman Chris Cram.
Many students were already at their stops, waiting for their rides. The announcement was made well after some were supposed to be picked up.
Cram said Wednesday afternoon that some affected routes would continue to have problems Wednesday afternoon, but that families would hear directly from their school’s principals. He said it was unclear as of 3:15 p.m. if problems would persist into Thursday morning.
MCPS operates 1,228 bus routes for students each morning, so about 7% were affected Wednesday. Routes throughout the county were affected, including many that transport students to and from special education and magnet programs.
For example, all bus routes in Olney that transport students to magnet programs at Montgomery Blair High, Takoma Park Middle and Eastern Middle schools were called off Wednesday, parents said.
Beth Klees, mother of a 10th-grade student who attends a program at Blair, said it was frustrating for families who received MCPS’ announcement after their children were supposed to be picked up. And it will be a “nightmare,” she said, if the problems persist.
The problems are compounded by anxiety about the spread of COVID-19, she added.
“It’s already enough when your kids are nervous to go (to school), but now the fact that my entire town, they’ve made it so we have to drive our kids or they can’t go to school,” Klees said.
Cram said it was not clear why the approximately 300 drivers were absent, but the district had “no indication” of any planned protests. He said supervisors were following up with employees on Wednesday afternoon to get more information.
Pia Morrison, president of the union that represents bus drivers, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. Since the start of the school year, Morrison and the leaders of other MCPS employee unions have lambasted the district for not addressing “critical” staffing shortages.
If the employees are sick with COVID-19 and need to quarantine, Cram said, the shortage could affect routes for several days, but MCPS will attempt to mitigate disruptions.
“We understand it’s an extreme inconvenience,” Cram said Wednesday morning. “We want our kids in school, so we’re going to figure it out.”
On Tuesday, the district announced that 11 schools would pivot to virtual classes due to their COVID-19 rates. Bus services for those schools were rerouted on Wednesday to help offset the He said affected families “should not worry about things like absences” if they were unable to get their children to school on Wednesday.
Melissa Ladd, a mother of two students at Sherwood High School, highlighted broader exasperation with the district’s handling of Wednesday’s driver shortage.
She said the timing of the announcement was frustrating, but it also lacked information families needed.
The message only listed bus route numbers with no additional context, and many families haven’t memorized their route number, nor do they know how to navigate school district websites to find them.
The message also was only sent in English. The district’s website says it has students enrolled from more than 157 countries, speaking 150 different languages. It often translates its messages to Spanish, Chinese, French, Korean and Vietnamese.
Personally, Ladd said, she recognizes she is more privileged than others because she was able to adjust her schedule and drive her children to school.
If the problems persist into Thursday, she won’t be able to do a planned substitute teaching job in the district, when MCPS is already struggling to cover teacher absences.
“None of it is upsetting to me except for the fact that when we’re planning, why aren’t we planning logically in terms of staffing” Ladd said. “None of these things should be surprises.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org