The University of Maryland affirmed its support of Shuttle-UM drivers Monday after facing backlash over the weekend in response to the way the school’s Department of Transportation Services handled an incident that occurred last week between a driver and three young people who weren’t wearing masks.

According to a University of Maryland Police report, the trio broke a bus window Wednesday night after the driver didn’t allow them to board the vehicle due to their refusal to put on masks.  The next day, he said he was informed that he would be facing disciplinary action for not allowing the group onto the bus. The driver has asked to remain anonymous to avoid further repercussions.

In an emailed statement on Monday, university spokesperson Katie Lawson wrote that school officials “fully support our employee who put first the health and safety of everyone on the bus.” Armand Scala, senior associate director for DOTS, also sent an email to Shuttle-UM drivers on Monday, clarifying that “no employee should do, or feel compelled to do, anything that they believe puts their safety in jeopardy.”

Emily Fox, a Maryland student employed as an organizer by the union that represents this university’s employees, said Monday evening that the bus driver had not yet heard from his supervisors about whether he would still be facing punishment. In an interview on Sunday, the driver said he has been taking time off since Thursday, since he was told he’d be disciplined for his actions. He’s been wracked with worry for his job.

“I’m confused why I’m facing disciplinary action when I’m just trying to keep everybody safe,” he said. “I don’t understand.”

At around 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the driver said, he stopped at a bus stop where the three young people were standing. When he told them that face coverings are required to board the bus, he said they lifted their shirts over their faces. He told them that wouldn’t be sufficient, the driver recalled, and began to pull away. That’s when he heard a loud crash, he said.

When the driver glanced in his rearview mirror, he said, he saw the group running away. According to a police report filed about the incident, the group had thrown an “unknown object” at the vehicle’s passenger side. Officers searched the area, according to the report, but were not able to find the young people. The case is still active, according to the report.

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Usually, when the driver tells a group of students who aren’t wearing masks that they’ll need to put one on to ride his bus, he said he doesn’t get any problems. The students will grab their masks from their pockets and apologize, he said. 

“This is the first time we’ve ever gone through this in all of our lifetimes, so I can understand you forgetting to wear a mask or forgetting to put it on,” he said. “But they didn’t have any masks at all … That’s what made me think, I don’t think they were students [at this university].”

After the bus driver watched the group run away, he said the DOTS manager on duty and University Police responded to the scene. There, he said, the manager told him that he wasn’t supposed to deny anybody entry on the bus — even though DOTS states on its website that all passengers and drivers are required to wear a face covering while on board. Face coverings have also been required on public transportation under Maryland law since state Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order in July.

The next day, the driver said, the department’s assistant general manager told him he would be facing disciplinary action. He was distraught, he said. When he blocked the group of students from getting on the bus, he wasn’t just thinking of his safety and the health of his family — he had also been trying to protect the student already on the bus, as well as everyone else he’d be driving that night, he said.

“Say I’m riding around with someone who didn’t have a mask on that was infected,” the driver said. “Now the whole bus is, so everyone after them is going to be infected.”

Then, on Friday, the department’s assistant general manager sent an email to Shuttle-UM drivers, informing them that enforcement of the school’s mask policies should only fall to campus ambassadors, the Police Auxiliary and College Park code enforcement officers. 

Although the email advised drivers to call in to dispatch for assistance if a passenger is “unruly or belligerent,” it stated that they may not bar a passenger from boarding or make a passenger exit the vehicle for not wearing a face covering.

When the driver saw the email, he said he couldn’t believe it. His department wasn’t supporting him at all, he said. And the stakes are high if he were to be exposed to the virus, he said — he’s 48 years old, and doesn’t know what would happen if he were to come down with the disease. He also has two children, a 19-year-old and a 12-year-old. And what if he were to pass the virus on to his mother? She’s in her 70s, he said, and is recovering from cancer. She could very well die, he said.

His coworkers, many of whom are around his age, share his concerns, he said.

“All of them who came back, I don’t think no one feels — especially after this incident — feels safe,” he said. “ Especially if you’re not even going to back the people that came back willingly to do the job.”

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Another Shuttle-UM driver, Nathan Sparks, called the email “peak management,” in a Sunday interview, describing its guidance as an example of supervisors “making decisions that they don’t have to live with the direct consequences of.” 

Though he says students are usually pretty good about wearing their masks on his bus, he said they’ll sometimes pull the coverings down under their noses or take them off after boarding. Sparks says he can’t monitor the behavior of students at all times, since he’s driving, but he said he tries to remind his passengers that face coverings are required on Shuttle-UM vehicles when he can. And he said he didn’t intend to stop doing so, even after receiving the email on Friday.

“It’s a matter of life and death,” he said. “This is something that I feel is my duty as a citizen of this country — as a fellow human — to help protect people’s health if I can.”

On Saturday, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1072 — the union that represents workers at this university — documented Wednesday’s incident and its aftermath in a Twitter thread, criticizing the school’s response as “unacceptable.” Uproar over the situation quickly swelled online, with the thread garnering hundreds of likes and retweets.

In the thread, the union called upon the university yet again to bargain with its workers over health and safety practices — something that the university has repeatedly refused to do, according to an unfair labor practices complaint AFSCME Local 1072 filed in July with the Maryland State Higher Education Labor Relations Board.

“Bargain with frontline workers,” the union demanded in the thread. “This is not the only policy which needs changing, and our lives are on the line.”

On Monday — along with asserting the university’s support of the bus driver — Lawson, the university spokesperson, described several measures the school has implemented to protect drivers during the pandemic. Drivers have the authority to not stop to pick passengers up if they think there are already too many people on the bus, Lawson wrote, and passengers are required to enter at the back of the bus to maintain distance from the driver.

Scala, the senior associate director for DOTS, also described steps the department has taken to communicate the fact that face coverings are required on university buses in a Monday email to Shuttle-UM drivers. For instance, Scala wrote, the department has included signage on the outside and inside of Shuttle-UM vehicles announcing this policy and has further discussed it on social media and on the DOTS website.

However, he acknowledged in the email that communication from the department had caused some confusion among employees. 

“The guidance we’ve provided to Shuttle-UM staff on refraining from enforcing this requirement was meant to help staff avoid situations where they may feel obliged to confront passengers and thereby put themselves at risk,” Scala wrote. “However, I want to make it clear that if any driver feels unsafe picking up, transporting or working around anyone else because that person is not wearing a face covering, they should not feel compelled to do so.”

The bus driver wasn’t available for comment Monday night, but on Sunday he stressed that he came back to campus because he was willing to work again, despite the pandemic. He’s worked as a driver for the university for almost six years, and says he loves it.

“It’s a wonderful job,” he said. “I want my university to move forward just like I want my children to move forward. But I don’t want it to happen at the [expense of] my life, or anyone else’s life.”