School bus wheels roll on through pandemic challenges
By Winter Hawk
Almost 10% of students at Prince George’s County Schools (PGCPS) don’t need transportation to school because they are learning from home this fall.
Even so, the county struggled to transport students to school in September. CEO of county schools Monica Goldson issued an email plea to parents on Sept. 15 asking them to help out by carpooling and driving kids to school.
So far, despite the transportation challenges, the pandemic has not stopped most kids from attending school.
The county has reported outbreaks at a handful of schools since the start of the school year. Hyattsville’s Saint Jerome Academy reported the largest outbreak in the county, with 20 cases. Students there returned to in-person school Oct. 5, following a 12-day shutdown.
Waiting for the bus
Zora McCarthy has a son who is a seventh grader at Hyattsville Middle School’s Bowie location, and a daughter who is a 10th grader at Northwestern High School.
While the pandemic is causing bus driver shortages nationwide, McCarthy points out that such shortages are not new for PGCPS.
“At least the last three years, the bus drivers have been leaving,” she said. “I talked to the bus drivers all the time, and a lot of them have been around since [my kids] were in elementary school. They just were tired of it because they were saying [schools] were cutting hours, not paying them, overworking them because already then they didn’t have enough bus drivers.”
In 2019, county schools were short 150 drivers in mid-October. This year, they are still looking for more than 200 drivers.
PGCPS is offering bus drivers up to $25.39 an hour and competitive benefits packages, according to Meghan Gebreselassie, PGCPS media relations director.
During a Hyattsville Middle School PTSO general meeting on Sept. 14, Principal Chanita Stamper addressed the late pick up times at Meadowbrook, the Bowie location where seventh and eighth graders are attending school this fall while their school is being rebuilt on-site in Hyattsville.
Stamper advised students to do homework while waiting for the bus.
Bus pickup times are steadily improving; while some students waited for more than two-and-a-half hours the first week for a bus to pick them up at school, which ends at 4:05 p.m., the last bus left Meadowbrook at 6 p.m. on Sept. 14 and at 4:45 p.m. on Sept. 23.
Still, many parents are opting to pick their children up.
“Originally I was taking the bus, but it would come like an hour late every day, and it still does it now,” said Isaiah Edwards, an eighth grader who was transferred to Meadowbrook from Hyattsville Middle School, and whose mother picks him up at school.
Jerry Sellers, whose daughter also attends Meadowbrook during the middle school rebuild, said, “The buses are late in the morning, and the kids don’t get to school until [after schools] start … . When the buses come late, it puts the buses in traffic, then the kids get home late; they only have, like, maybe a half an hour or so, or hour, to do their homework. Then, before you know it, they have to eat dinner and go back to sleep.”
Parents are frustrated because driving their kids to and from school puts them in traffic and costs more in gas than when the kids walked to Hyattsville Middle School, Sellers added.
While the pickup line at Meadowbrook clears out quickly, other schools have not been as fortunate.
McCarthy, who picked her daughter up at Northwestern High School before driving to Meadowbrook to get her son, said the line was chaotic. It took McCarthy half an hour to get through, and cars were barely scraping by one another.
However, not every parent is able to pick their child up from school.
“I have to be at work at 7 in the morning,” said Nubia Arias, whose daughter goes to Northwestern High School. “I don’t finish until after 5. So, I couldn’t drop her off or pick her up.”
Arias’ daughter, Jacqueline, took public transportation to school for the first week. But, Arias’ concern for her daughter’s safety made her turn to someone who does daily rounds picking up kids and taking them home from school.
“It is $40 weekly,” said Arias. “An extra bill!”
First classroom outbreaks
On Sept. 22, four schools reported the first COVID-19 classroom outbreaks in Prince George’s County, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Classroom outbreaks occur when at least two positive cases are confirmed within two weeks.
Saint Jerome Academy in Hyattsville closed after a dozen cases suggested school-based transmission. Students attended school virtually during a 12-day shutdown.
University Park Elementary School reported four positive cases leading to classroom closures.
On Oct. 6, the Benjamin Foulois Creative and Performing Arts Academy in Morningside and the Children’s Guild of Prince George’s County in Chillum also reported outbreaks, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
More virtual school than expected
Roughly 13,700 K-12 students began the school year in the county’s temporary virtual learning program out of the over 135,000 students currently enrolled in county public schools.
The county admitted all elementary school students who applied for the virtual schooling program. The virtual elementary school program is expected to end once vaccines are available for all grade levels, according to the county public schools’ website.
Some elementary school teachers are teaching hybrid classrooms, with both online and in-person students enrolled.
While over 10,000 students enrolled in the K-6 virtual learning program, only 700 students in grades seven through 12 were admitted to the specialty program.
“If you were in seven to 12, there was a lottery,” said McCarthy. “Nobody I know got picked in the lottery, and the only qualification for that was GPA and absences.”
McCarthy’s son and daughter both wanted to return to school. But McCarthy monitored the cases before sending her kids back to in-person classes on Sept. 23.
Although virtual learning is not possible for all students, the county as a whole is shifting to more online systems.
Electronic systems are used to track students and eliminate paper bathroom passes. Homework and other assignments are also submitted online, Gebreselassie noted.
Edwards, the eighth grader at Meadowbrook, said online submissions were easier, but noted that his class still takes notes on paper.
Other students also found it easier to complete and submit assignments online.
Gregory Willis, whose son is a seventh grader at Meadowbrook, said although his son seems happy to be back in school, it did not make sense to return to the classroom so soon.
“A lot of the instruction was on the computer,” he said. “So it was almost like, ‘Well, why are we back here?’”
However, for other students, the return to in-person learning was essential to bring kids back into social settings with their friends and boost their morale.
Jose Gomez, the godfather of a seventh grader at Meadowbrook School, noticed a significant change in his godson after he got the vaccine and returned to in-person school.
“When he was doing virtual [school], he was unable to communicate with kids, communicate with other people,” said Gomez. “He was down all the time, but now that he’s here, it’s perfect.”