Credit: File Photo

This story was updated at 6:25 p.m. Jan. 12, 2022, to include comments from Ed McDonough.

County and state officials are exploring multiple options to fill a bus driver shortage in Montgomery County Public Schools, after an initial request to the National Guard for hundreds of drivers was denied.

Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard wrote in a text message Wednesday that county officials requested 200 drivers from the Maryland National Guard on Jan. 6.

After a back-and-forth exchange, state officials said they were having difficulty meeting all of the state’s needs, so they probably don’t have people to spare, Stoddard wrote.

“When I spoke to Acting Secretary [Russell J.] Strickland (MEMA) yesterday, he confirmed that the [National Guard] is unavailable as they have limited CDL drivers and those limited drivers they have are dedicated to the surge and testing missions,” Stoddard wrote in a text Wednesday.

Stoddard said that the county is now waiting on a request via the state to see if other counties can assist with the bus driver shortage. The request, through the Maryland Interstate Emergency Management Assistance Compact (MIEMAC), is still pending, Stoddard wrote.

In a news briefing later on Wednesday, Stoddard admitted that because other jurisdictions are dealing with similar issues, it would be difficult for the request to be fulfilled.

“I candidly am not optimistic. … Everyone is seeing these shortages,” Stoddard told reporters. “There is not some pool … [or] secret bus driver organization that’s been waiting in the wings to fulfill this request. If there’s a resource that’s out there, it’s been tapped long ago.”

Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, wrote in an email on Wednesday that his agency received the request for 200 bus drivers. He wrote that it is difficult to know if the situation will improve in future weeks.

“While we have reached out to the local jurisdictions as part of the [Maryland Interstate Emergency Management Assistance Compact] process, media reports over the last couple of months indicate this shortage is affecting many, if not all, school systems in Maryland,” McDonough wrote. “Since trying to find school bus drivers is uncharted territory for the MIEMAC, it is impossible to speculate about the ultimate ability to fulfill this request.”

Ben Hughes, a spokesman for the Maryland National Guard, deferred further comment to Gov. Larry Hogan’s office, but issued the following statement: 

“The Maryland National Guard is currently focused on supporting the Maryland Department of Health and other state agencies with missions for COVID-19 testing, supporting local hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, and assisting with non-life-threatening patient transport during the state of emergency due to a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.” 

County Council President Gabe Albornoz said in a news briefing Wednesday that the shortage is “wreaking havoc” for parents and students across public schools. However, school officials are better positioned to figure out plans if the state’s National Guard can’t help, he said.

Chris Cram, a spokesman for MCPS, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Monday that the school system was down 89 drivers on Jan. 10. Cram added that MCPS is having drivers run additional routes and that transportation managers are filling in to handle the shortage.

Along with those calling out due to positive COVID-19 tests, school officials are actively trying to hire to fill shortages in the system.

“The number of open positions (positions we are seeking to fill as opposed to openings due to COVID-19 callout)  daily fluctuates a little but recently has remained between 75 and a little more than 100,” Cram wrote in an email Monday.

Cram could not be reached for comment by phone, email or text Wednesday.

Early last week, more than 90 bus routes were canceled at the last minute because of shortages. Parents continued expressing frustration throughout the week, including during a virtual town hall hosted by County Council Member Tom Hucker on Sunday, which thousands of people attended. 

As of Wednesday, a week into the shortage, the number of affected routes had dropped to about 30.

Albornoz said he appreciates parents’ frustration over the bus driver shortage. Many schools in the system can’t handle the large volumes of cars they are now seeing in drop-off and pickup areas around school grounds.  

Council Member Craig Rice, who chairs the council’s Education and Culture committee, said county officials are looking to see if retired bus drivers or military veterans — both of whom might have commercial driver’s licenses — can assist.

“It’s really a ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ kind of approach, because it’s not just our system that is struggling with this,” Rice told reporters. “So we’re all competitive in that same stance, of trying to increase the cohort of bus drivers.”

In response to that and other questions, McDonough wrote in an email: “There is a very limited pool of the state employees who might have some of the skills needed. And most of those, transit drivers for example, are also in very short supply because of the effects of the pandemic.”

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, did not respond to emails for comment Wednesday about those potential solutions, or if the state is seeking other options to assist school districts.

County Council Vice President Evan Glass urged state officials and Hogan’s office to reconsider their request for help from the National Guard, noting that other governors have done it. 

In the news briefing, Stoddard said county and school officials are also looking at contract options for bus drivers. But there are logistical hurdles like ensuring drivers have commercial licenses with the state, and drivers must pass a background check, he added.

Staff writer Caitlynn Peetz contributed to this story. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com