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Difficult return to school in Maryland’s largest system as coronavirus surges

School buses sit at the Montgomery County Public Schools maintenance and operations center in Bethesda in August. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

As Maryland’s largest school system returned to classes Wednesday for the first time since winter break, so many bus drivers were out that 75 routes were canceled and hundreds of students in Montgomery County were forced to find their own rides.

The difficult comeback amid the surge of the omicron variant went beyond transportation, with educators reporting a striking number of absences of students and staff at numerous schools in the sprawling suburban system of 209 schools.

The system had faced a tough task: bringing back most of its 159,000 students, with coronavirus cases spiking and previous staffing shortages worsening. Anxiety was high. Eleven of the system’s public schools were switched from in-person to virtual learning because officials said so many students and staff tested positive for the virus during the break. Another 115 schools had hit the same mark Wednesday, and officials were evaluating whether to also move those schools online.

“People feel very insecure,” said Cynthia Simonson, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. “I think there are a tremendous number of mitigation strategies in place to keep our kids safe, but they are dependent on having staff there to implement them. Many parents who are speaking out on social media are questioning, is this safe?”

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School system officials said nearly 300 of the system’s more than 1,200 bus drivers were out Wednesday. They encouraged families to organize carpools or have students walk in groups, apologizing and saying that they were “working to better understand the problem.”

But they said they could not provide numbers on other staff absences or on how many students stayed home for the first day back.

Montgomery County interim superintendent Monifa McKnight on Tuesday described staff absences of teachers, cafeteria workers and bus drivers as “abnormally high,” but the school system did not provide figures. It employs more than 24,000 people.

In a message that went out Wednesday morning, the district provided a list of 90 bus routes across the system that would be canceled, which included 21 routes for students in special education. By day’s end, the number was revised to 75 routes in the morning and 82 in the afternoon — “through significant effort” by personnel at the district’s bus depots, said Christopher Cram, schools spokesman.

Cheryl Horn, a mother of two, said her 16-year-old daughter’s bus transportation to a midday school system career program was canceled without notice, leaving her stranded at Clarksburg High School, where she had no classes and no way of getting home. She waited with a handful of other students. “Even while they were sitting there waiting for an hour, no one told them,” Horn said. When no bus came, her father left work, picked her up and took her home.

“It’s really hurting our kiddos, the unknown and even the arguing about what’s best,” she said.

School officials did not have information on reports of a high number of teacher absences — and a lack of substitutes — at a string of schools, including Paint Branch, Gaithersburg, Springbrook and Northwest high schools.

“School continued today, and [through] the resourcefulness of school leaders and operations staff many challenges were addressed and will be in the coming days,” Cram said. “I would anticipate communications from the district frequently as we work through each challenge.”

Jennifer Martin, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, said the 14,000-member teachers union was hearing about “super-high” levels of anxiety experienced by educators and students worried about the level of virus circulating in school buildings. “It’s a pretty stressful time for many folks today,” she said.

Parents in the county remained divided on whether schools should be open or paused until the surge ends, and whether testing should have been done before students and staff returned.

Nicole Brown, parent of an elementary school student who supported a return, said her son reported an ordinary day at school. The only difference, she said, was that teachers asked students to bring their laptops and notebooks home with them, and more students were wearing highly protective masks, rather than cloth or other ones.