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On September 3, Tina Chung and her friends boarded a new school bus to attend a volleyball game at Perry Hall High School. For many of the students on the ride, nothing seemed out of place. But, having returned to in-person school just a few days earlier, Chung was jarred by what she walked into.
“It was shocking. There were three people per seat, people sitting on the ground, and it was just so packed.” says Chung of her ride. “I felt stressed because some people weren’t wearing their masks. There was absolutely no social distancing. And the people on this bus have to go through that every single day.”
Chung’s experience is the daily reality for some of the 84,000 students who ride buses in Baltimore County, Maryland. Students are experiencing the real-life consequences of low wages for school bus drivers, the consequent employment shortage, and failures in school transportation to adapt to ever-emerging safety concerns.
At my own school, Eastern Technical High School in Essex, I hear impromptu bus changes announced everyday in the afternoon. Two buses are combined; one group of students has no bus driver and will have to wait for an hour (unless they can get a parent to come pick them up). Faiza Ashar, a junior at Eastern Tech, says that more stops were tacked onto to the end of her bus's route this year, and many of the students who get on at these stops can’t find seats.
Generally, buses are growing more and more packed because students are being squeezed onto fewer and fewer buses. Why? The rampant shortage of school bus drivers. In 2016, 52% of transportation professionals surveyed by the National Association for Pupil Transportation reported that a deficit in driver employment is their “number one concern.” Fox Baltimore reported in August that at least 65 bus driver vacancies needed to be filled in BCPS, a mere week before the 2021-22 school year began. Some of the drivers who continue to serve students have gone as far as to protest their low pay and poor working conditions. (For reference, school bus drivers in Baltimore County only make about $17/hour).
The risks, both standard and COVID-related, of near- and over-capacity school buses cannot be understated. Over one-hundred students die of school-transportation-related crashes every year. And while COVID-19 transmission rates on buses have been found to be low, this safety has some very important caveats: students should be socially distant and masked, and buses must be kept at normal capacity. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that school buses with standard 39-inch seats should, at most, be seating 2 high-school-aged students and 3 elementary-school-aged students.
Patricia Alegria, a sophomore at Franklin High School in Reisterstown, describes a day on which her below-capacity bus was combined with another, more crowded bus: “It was very stuffy. We had the windows open, but it was still very humid in there. Understandably, people are going to be more tempted to lower their masks or just take their masks off completely.” The issue of unenforced COVID-19 protocols is a major concern for students. Alegria explains that on buses, where social distancing can’t be managed, she has “more fear of getting COVID even though [she’s] vaccinated.” Her friends, she explains, “want to avoid riding the bus. A bunch of people have their parents pick them up.”
Students I spoke to describe feeling “scared,” “stressed,” and “cautious” on their buses. Chung, a sophomore at Eastern Tech, says that “Some people don’t wear their masks. After they leave school property, there’s no teachers watching out for it. ” Buses have been crowded for years, and schools have brushed it off. “But now, this is real. It’s an actual disease. It can be fatal, and it’s already been affecting our lives so much, so maybe [school and district administrators] could try to help out a little bit,” Chung said.
School transportation is in a difficult position. To protect everybody from COVID-19 transmission, the district must enforce safety and sanitation protocols and instate a smart, predictable distribution of students across buses. The county has put forth strategies for enhancing the bus system, but the failure to ensure the safety and financial security of bus drivers has left both the labor sector and students without guarantees.
First, on the back end, the Baltimore County Board of Education must coordinate with employee bargaining units to heighten salaries for school bus drivers and ensure that bus driving vacancies are advertised and filled as quickly as possible.
School administrators and regional officials in the BCPS Office of Transportation must develop a systematic, consistent evaluation and reporting method for determining the conditions of all school buses and issuing responses promptly. Especially during the COVID pandemic, regular reports on the capacity, safety, and the status of COVID-19 protocols must be distributed, as well as quantitative data on bus driver shortages and students impacted by them. As student Tina Chung put it, “[Schools] should try and see for themselves how packed these buses are.”
As students, our experiences on unsafe, crowded buses are the most powerful fuel for change. Testify to the Baltimore County Board of Education and explain your concerns about transportation safety.
For the sake of student safety and health, the bus driver shortage in Baltimore County must be managed. Students will continue to find themselves on packed buses, and those without alternative transportation options will be victimized even more by the socioeconomic fissures in our system. If we solve this problem, equitable protection from COVID-19 - in every domain of our school system - can be realized as a reality.