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EXCLUSIVE: How a high-tech school bus company’s ‘continued failures’ left students stranded and parents furious nationwide

Zum's revolutionary new busing ideas were beset by the same age-old problems.

 

Samantha Barrett

Tech

Posted on Dec 5, 2023   Updated on Dec 7, 2023, 3:26 pm CST

Zum Services, a company built on a promise to revolutionize school transportation, initially fell short of its sole responsibility: Getting kids to class.

At the start of the 2023-24 school year, Zum struggled, with parents, school administrators, and drivers embroiled in an “unmitigated disaster,” according to emails obtained by the Daily Dot. 

“The continued failures of ZUM in our school start this year are unacceptable,” said a Howard County, Maryland official, blasting the company as kids were left stranded on the first day of classes.

Zum’s rollout in Spokane, Washington and Howard County Public School (HCPSS) this year prompted confusion and backlash.

However, Zum said to the Daily Dot that despite hiccups, its offerings have been a success across the country.

“In Howard County alone, Zum has solved the years-long driver shortage, with sufficient drivers for HCPSS for the first time this year, the buses are running on time,” a spokesperson said. “Zum’s technology has dramatically improved their experience. Zum is the only vendor that invites parents to rate its performance, and parents nationwide give us a 4.9 star rating.”

The company promises its artificial intelligence, algorithms, and parent-focused app will revolutionize the school bus industry. 

Instead, parents were “becoming really agitated,” with late buses, canceled routes, driver shortages, and concerns never previously seen in school busing. 

“Some parents have asked me questions about data privacy,” wrote a Howard County official. “What information does Zum have about the children?” 

“At some point we need communication if no bus or driver is available,” a Howard County athletic and activities director said after transportation for a cross-country team did not show up.

“Bus questions came up with the families,” said a teacher from Spokane Public Schools. “Now I, too, have many questions!”

Zum, a tech startup launched in 2015, has been compared to Uber for schools. It promises to revolutionize the school bus industry by introducing technology-based solutions, such as cameras to monitor bus behavior, an app that uses GPS technology to show parents where their child is, and routes optimized through AI. 

Zum, in a statement to the Daily Dot,

Zum also aims to improve driver recruitment and retention to cut down on driver shortages, a problem currently felt across the country.

Zum swooped into Maryland with a “proven playbook” for driver recruitment and retention, securing a $81 million bid for three years. But it failed to meet its basic promises on the first day of school in Howard County.

In documents obtained by the Daily Dot, Zum promises competitive pay, benefits, and modern perks for their drivers. It also says it pays to put candidates through school bus training. 

The company said it would create at least five positions in Howard County dedicated specifically to driver recruitment and training.

According to Zum’s request for proposal, this playbook helped the company keep its driving positions staffed while the rest of the country struggled.

Schools are feeling the effects of the bus driver shortage nationwide. 

According to a survey conducted by HopSkipDrive, 92% of respondents said school bus operations were affected by driver shortages in 2023. Drivers are leaving the industry for a variety of reasons, including retirement and poor benefits. School Bus Fleet, a magazine covering topics related to school buses, says the low pay and short hours also stop people from becoming new drivers. 

These issues were only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as concerns over the virus prompted more drivers to quit.

Zum says it solved it all.

“Our partner districts did not suffer from extreme driver shortages or service outages like SPS and many neighboring school districts have experienced in the past,” Zum wrote in its RFP letter for Spokane Public Schools.

Howard County was one of the districts that had been beset by driver issues.

“We’ve been challenged by a bus driver shortage of between 85 to 95 drivers for several years now,” said Brian Bassett, HCPSS’s director of communication and engagement, in a statement to the Daily Dot. 

Despite this promise, Howard County started the school year with a driver shortage, leading to the cancellation of 20 routes, even after Zum scrambled to cover its own shortfall by flying in drivers from across the country. 

“It was something that we weren’t aware that we were going into the first day with, with routes that wouldn’t be covered,” Bassett said. 

Howard County awarded Zum 230 bus routes. Before the first day of school, 72 Zum drivers from other states were flown in “to fill gaps left by the national driver shortage,” Zum said in an Aug. 31 blog post addressing the struggles in Howard County. 

This means prior to the start of the school year, Zum had just 158 full-time, Howard County-based drivers to fill the 230 routes they were awarded.

With the out-of-state drivers, Zum thought it had enough to cover their routes.

But on the morning of Aug. 28, the first day of school in Howard County, 20 called out of work. 

With no backup drivers, Zum canceled routes entirely, leaving students without a way to get to school. A company spokesperson said the number of callouts were higher than expected, and unique to Howard County.

“This is not something we have seen in other markets,” Zum said in a statement to the Daily Dot. 

In the wake of the disastrous Howard County rollout, Zum began offering greater incentives for new drivers, such as an $8,000 signing bonus. It also offered a $500 bonus to any driver who showed up to work every day for a month. Zum received an influx of applications after the first week of school.

When bus routes are canceled, parents are forced to find a way to get children to and from school. 

According to WYPR News, some parents in Howard County organized their own carpools. 

Working parents who rely on the bus may have to take time off to drive their children to or from school, a problem Zum CEO Ritu Narayan hoped to mitigate when she founded the company in 2015, driven by a desire to ease the burdens working moms may face. 

Her other aim was to use modern technology to shorten student commutes. According to Zum’s website, longer commutes harm students’ ability to focus. 

HopSkipDrive, using data from the Journal of Planning Education and Research, found students with longer commutes get less sleep and exercise, which impacts their mental health.

Zum uses AI to create “optimized” routes, according to its Spokane Public Schools RFP letter, to ensure trips are short as possible. It may, instead of sending a bus to pick up students, recommend sending two vans instead. 

This, Zum says, results in shorter routes, which drivers can complete faster.

Zum also uses GPS tracking and its app to update parents and schools on where children are in real-time. 

But some HCPSS officials were unconvinced about both the need and efficacy of the technological fixes. 

“Your dispatch and people on the ground continue to try to leverage your GPS / technology solution,” said an HCPSS coordinator for student transportation, who called the situation a “disaster.” 

“In short, it isn’t working. Drivers are accepting routes and then failing to complete them. They are marking them as complete before even picking up students, then disappearing from the map.” 

The coordinator said drivers were using the technology incorrectly, leading to confusion and frustration for the district.

In Spokane, technology complaints were front and center, as parents were frustrated with Zum’s app. It is designed to help parents track their child’s bus, directly communicate with their driver, and inform drivers if their children will not be riding the bus that day. 

Kids are given an identification card they swipe each time they get on the bus. Once logged in, the app shows parents where the child’s bus is.

But according to emails obtained by the Daily Dot, families had difficulty with it. 

In one case, the app displayed incorrect route information and scheduled a student to begin riding the bus on Aug. 31, five days before the start of school. When a family raised these questions, it was referred to several different departments within the school before getting in contact with someone who could help them. 

The ID card rollout was equally difficult. Kids were not allowed to ride the bus if they did not have a Zum ID card with them, but some families hadn’t received their cards on Aug. 31, five days before the first day of school. 

“When will families get the badge or bus pass?” an English teacher asked in an email on Aug. 31. “We did explain that no badge, no bus.”

The families were told that until children received their cards, drivers could look them up to check them in, a process that presumably slows down the system.

Spokane District Transportation Manager Corey Arkle said there were 1,000 late student registrations this year, causing the delay in ID cards being delivered. He says Zum did not expect the high volume of late registrations but took efforts to work quickly through the backlog.

“Just like anything with technology, there’s always things that you got to work through,” said Arkle. He also said some of the errors could have been caused by their own student information system as it integrated with Zum’s. 

Overall, Arkle said they have received positive feedback from parents about Zum’s app. 

“We’re transitioning to new buses, new technology, new processes, and we’re both learning,” said Arkle. “But what I’ve seen is they’ve been very responsive, they’ve been listening to feedback and working through the things that come up.”

A company spokesperson said most parents in Spokane had a “positive experience.”

“If isolated incidents inevitably occur, we work hard to address and rectify them quickly.”

Zum’s GPS and AI advancements, which in Howard County were used to guide drivers along the district-created routes, sent drivers on inefficient paths.

HCPSS officials said in emails that Zum’s GPS steered drivers incorrectly out of the bus yard and also into traffic, adding to delays. 

“There is no dedicated turn arrow, and the length of ‘green’ time is minimal,” they said of a traffic light along the route GPS sent most buses. “This causes significant traffic back-ups.” 

The director suggested drivers take alternate routes instead. 

Zum’s customer service solutions to these problems left administrations wanting. HCPSS schools had difficulty determining how to get in contact with Zum representatives about concerns over missing and late buses, unable to determine where those students were.

“The [Zum] representative was very supportive, but it took quite some time to receive a response to a missing 1st grade student,” said a Bryant Woods Elementary assistant principal

In response, Zum’s operations manager apologized and said it had been “a very busy week.”

Even Zum’s non-technological solutions caused problems, less effective than promised. In May 2023, Seattle Zum drivers, organizing with Teamsters Local 174, voted to authorize a strike if Zum and its drivers could not agree on a new contract. Drivers complained Zum’s benefits were less competitive than the benefits First Student, another busing company, offered. 

In an article, the Teamsters union called Zum’s bid to the Seattle School District “unrealistically low,” and said the company is trying to “pass responsibility for that decision onto their workers,” by shorting drivers on pay. 

Two weeks later, Zum and the union came to an agreement and signed a new contract, preventing a strike. Teamsters say the new benefits are at least on par with First Student benefits. 

Today, Zum provides service for 4,000 schools around the country, including Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest district in the country. 

It adds a few new schools each year to limit transition complications. In Howard County, Zum is providing more traditional transportation services, and the district planned the routes and set the start times. 

HCPSS acknowledged it was not blameless in the struggles at the beginning of the school year. The district’s new bell times made it impossible for drivers to cover additional routes as they had in past years. It expanded from two tiers of start times to three, condensing the time drivers had to complete routes to the point where it was impossible to finish on time.

“There wasn’t enough slack in the system, is the way it’s been described, for buses to account for traffic and, you know, other things that pop up,” Bassett said. 

The new system caused long-lasting problems for all of the district’s contractors, not just Zum. 

“It was a domino effect,” Bassett said.

By Oct. 25, Zum said it hired enough bus drivers for HCPSS to have a surplus of drivers for the first time in years. 

“We got to the point where all routes were covered,” Basset said. “We’re one of the few districts that don’t have a bus driver shortage right now.”

Zum finished restoring their routes on Sept. 18, weeks into the start of the school year. On Sept. 20, the district implemented new start times with the help of Zum GPS data that gave drivers more time between routes. Immediately, the number of on-time arrivals began to increase. 

On Nov. 3, HCPSS Superintendent Michael Marirano gave a 60-day transportation review to the Board of Education. 

The review shows that on Sept. 20, on-time pickups in the afternoon jumped to 91%, up from just 38% the day before. Now, Zum and the district are both operating as expected.

“We’re where we wish we would’ve been on day one,” Bassett said. 

This post has been updated to include additional comment from Zum and Spokane Public School.

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*First Published: Dec 5, 2023, 8:11 am CST