Students in a Maryland county may see someone unusual behind the wheel as they head to school: a member of the National Guard, filling in amid a school bus driver shortage. The Montgomery County Assistant Chief Administration Officer Earl Stoddard said a rise in COVID-19 cases across the region has led to a tough few weeks, WUSA reports.
On Tuesday, 50 bus routes in the school system were affected, a spokesperson told WUSA.
“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,” Stoddard said during Tuesday’s council meeting, WUSA reports. “My understanding is the National Guard may not be able to help but they’ve also sent it around to counties around who may be able to help us.”
Maryland’s Emergency Management Agency asked 23 counties, three cities and state agencies if they could assist, a spokesperson for the agency told WUSA.
“These are not normal times,” Stoddard said, adding that it is an unfair expectation that officials will just “paper over some of these issues.”
On January 5, the first day back to school following the holiday break, the county’s public school system canceled 90 of its 1,228 bus routes after drivers called out, according to WUSA. The school system sent a letter to families saying COVID-19 and staffing issues were to blame.
Staffing issues also arose in 2021, and in December, the district was working to hire new bus drivers.
In a statement to CBS News, a spokesperson for the school district said the county government’s request for bus driver help has yet to receive a response.
“It must be said that the number of affected routes, in recent days, has declined from nearly 100 routes daily to just 29 today, Jan. 13,” the spokesperson said. “Staff in the MCPS Department of Transportation are working to recruit, hire and train bus drivers in as fast a manner as is possible.”
CBS News has also reached out to Maryland’s Emergency Management Agency and county officials for comment and is awaiting response.
A nationwide survey in 2021 found more than half of America’s school districts is “severe” or “desperate.” Many drivers retired during the pandemic, and now some are scared of face-to-face interaction with potentially infected kids.
The National Guard was deployed to drive buses in Massachusetts at the start of the 2021 school year. In Virginia, Michael Mason, retired executive assistant director of the FBI,to help the Chesterfield County school district. EastSide Charter School in Delaware is offering parents $700 to drive their own children to and from school.
Rudolph Saunders, the director of public transportation for Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, said onthe problem is nothing new, but the numbers are higher than usual.
“This has always been an issue. The difference is right now, the numbers are probably double what they normally would be at this time of year or more in terms of our need,” Saunders told CBS News Errol Barnett.
Since the Omicron variant began to surge in New York, the state has experienced bus driver shortages, CBS New York reports. Many private schools, such as St. Augustine Catholic in Ossining, have been affected, as they usually share buses with public school districts. In Westchester County’s Hendrick Hudson School District, 25% of bus drivers were out recently dealing with COVID-19.
And school districts in Central Texas faced a bus driver shortage this week, including Hutto ISD, which canceled most bus routes Monday, and Leander ISD, which saw delays, CBS Austin reports.
Becoming a bus driver isn’t a quick process. Drivers must have a commercial driver’s license, which requires months of training. And with so few applicants in the pipeline, this driver crisis could continue for the rest of the school year.
In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul announced this week a new plan to allow qualified third parties to offer the road test for commercial driver’s licenses as a way to address a critical truck and bus driver shortage, according to CBS New York. This would create more testing locations and expand capacity at existing state-run sites, thus reducing the time it takes to get more qualified drivers licensed.