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Baltimore County to pilot ‘find my school bus’ app

Baltimore is one of many US school districts facing a severe, pandemic-related shortage of school bus drivers. Baltimore City offers parents a $250 monthly transportation stipend, but ride-share costs usually far exceed that. (photo by Bernard Moehle/Wikimedia/CC)
Baltimore County is one of many US school districts facing a severe, pandemic-related shortage of school bus drivers. (photo by Bernard Moehle/Wikimedia/CC)

Baltimore County school officials are piloting a new mobile app to enable some parents, students and staff to track the whereabouts of buses.

With classes beginning in less than a month, officials are also working to have enough bus drivers to avoid delays.

During the last school year, there were daily reports of buses running late, leaving students stranded and parents scrambling. School officials blamed that on a nationwide bus driver shortage.

Parents griped to school leaders about lack of communication about when buses would be late and for how long.

Deputy Superintendent Myriam Yarbrough told the county council that they are piloting an Uber-like app that would allow buses to be tracked. She said they have been trying it out on 45 routes during summer school.

The plan is to expand that to 145 routes this fall. That’s roughly 20% of the school system’s 785 bus routes.

Yarbrough said parents and students on those 145 routes will be trained on how to use the app.

“And then we’re going to get feedback from them for a sustained period of time,” Yabrough said. “Make sure that all of the technical aspects work, so then we can broaden it to the whole system.”

Yarbrough did not say when that might happen.

Union leaders for principals, teachers and bus drivers said they haven’t been told much about the coming bus app.

Cindy Sexton, the president of TABCO, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County said, “TABCO is aware of the bus tracking pilot but has not been provided information beyond what was shared at board of education meetings.”

The school system denied WYPR’s request for an interview and demo of the mobile app technology.

Gboyinde Onijala, the school system’s communications director, said the app contract is with BusWhere, which is based in Chevy Chase. She was not able to confirm the cost of the contract.

School systems around the nation have rolled out tracking tools. Calvert County has one mobile app known as, Here Comes the Bus.

Traci Chappelear-Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Calvert County Schools, is also a parent to a second grade student. She said the app lets her know once her child’s bus is within a certain radius of the bus stop.

“If I’m in the house or if I’m coming home from work and I’m trying to figure out am I going to be there on time or what time do I have to walk out to the bus stop, I’ve absolutely loved being able to connect in real time through the app,” Chappelear-Thomas said.

But new tech will not solve the underlying problem Baltimore County has had with chronically-late school buses.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski said it happened to his daughter several times last year, as she waited for the bus to take her to kindergarten.

“And that’s very problematic for any parent in any family, particularly for young students,” Olszewski said.

The school system says it’s taking steps to deal with not having enough bus drivers. They have held more than two dozen recruitment drives. They’re offering drivers $2 more an hour and the flexibility to work just a morning or afternoon shift, rather than having to do both.

A bus driver trainee has a starting salary of $17.02 an hour while experienced drivers can earn upwards of $19.02 per hour. Bus drivers work part-time between 15 hours and 25 hours each week.

Deputy Superintendent Yarbrough said they also are reaching out to recent retirees.

“Where we are asking them to come on back, we need them. Increased compensation as well as increased flexibility,” Yarbrough said.

She told the county council they are trying to fill 90 vacancies.

Olszewski said he’s more confident now than he was the last school year that the school system is grappling with its late bus problems.

Olszewski said, “It’s one of the most fundamental things we need to do for our kids and having that run smoothly and effectively is something that parents should expect us to do and we should expect our school system to deliver on.”

Republican Councilman David Marks said he too expects to see improvements but is concerned a lack of discipline on school buses will cause drivers to get fed up and quit, and for others to not apply at all.

Marks said, “There’s just this sense that we don’t have strong discipline policies in place and if we don’t that’s going to be a disincentive for people to join that pool of drivers.”

School officials say they are putting bus discipline procedures in place for the fall.

During the last school year, county council members’ phones routinely blew up from constituents complaining about late buses. The council members in turn blew up at Superintendent Darryl Williams.

A majority of council members called on the school board to do a nationwide search for a possible replacement for Williams when his contract expires next year.

“This is not working for me,” Democratic Councilwoman Cathy Bevins said at a June meeting. “It’s not working for me and it’s not working for my parents.”

Bevins’ tone softened with Williams when he appeared before the council last week.

Bevins told Williams, “I applaud the efforts you have made, especially with the bus drivers.”

BusWhere is a mobile app used to track school buses.
BusWhere is a mobile app used to track school buses.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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