Prince George’s County Public Schools bus drivers are fighting for safer conditions and a stronger support system from the county.

The school system was understaffed by more than 200 bus drivers at the beginning of this school year, while 217 bus routes did not have a scheduled driver. On top of this shortage, a lack of protection on the job and unclear bus safety policies have led drivers to encounter situations they consider dangerous.

Virginia Wilcox has been a PGCPS bus driver for more than 20 years and is the assistant chief steward of the transportation chapter for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2250, the union chapter for employees in the county school system. She is worried about the safety of her and her fellow bus drivers because of the employee shortage, she said.

“We’re out there by ourselves with 50 or 60 kids on a bus,” Wilcox said. “Some of us are down dark country roads, others are in the city, wherever we are sitting ducks for any parent that wants to come up and take out their frustrations on us.”

Essence Herndon, another bus driver in the school system, testified in front of the PGCPS Board of Education two weeks ago regarding bus driver safety. Herndon — who has been a driver with PGCPS for eight years and is currently the chair and chief steward of AFSCME local 2250’s transportation chapter — said that drivers in the county are tripling or quadrupling their runs to cover for the shortage.

[PGCPS’ bus driver shortage leaves some students stranded at bus stops]

Jossalyn Ford, a PGCPS bus driver for 26 years and a member of AFSCME local 2250 executive board for transportation, agreed with Herndon.

“We cannot keep up with it,” Ford said. “They need to find some way of hiring people and not just hiring anybody, because it takes a special person to be a bus driver.”

The shortage is not bus drivers’ only concern. Bus lots in the county are open, dimly lit and some are surrounded by woods. Many drivers are nervous walking back from the lots after their runs, they said.

At one of Herndon’s lots two years ago, angry parents got out of their cars and started yelling at a bus driver. The other drivers present during the situation had to form a “human shield” to protect the driver who was being yelled at, Herndon said. While no one was harmed, Herndon emphasized drivers need better protection when these encounters occur.

“We’re too wide open and accessible where the public can just aimlessly either walk up or drive up onto the lots,” Herndon said. “There’s no protection.”

In a statement to The Diamondback, PGCPS said it has “zero tolerance” for weapons on campus, buses or any actions that compromise student and staff safety. The county implemented increased security measures this school year and is currently “phasing in” security screening devices at all high schools and some middle schools.

“As always, we will continue to exercise every means possible to ensure safe learning environments for students and staff and we ask the community to join us in this collective effort,” the statement said.

[PGCPS holds safety forum after increase in gun-related incidents]

Despite the county’s efforts, many bus drivers said they still do not feel supported, especially in emergency situations.

On Thursday, Kenmoor Middle School in Landover was placed on a brief lockdown due to police activity in the community. Bus drivers do not have a clear protocol in lockdown situations, Herndon said, which often leads to miscommunication between the county, schools and drivers.

“When the school is going on lockdown, when the buses are sitting outside, the school doesn’t pull the drivers off the buses,” Herndon said. “We’re sitting ducks, and it could be anything going on.”

Wilcox said she wants an emergency plan to be put in place for bus drivers.

Other drivers are hoping to feel more support from and collaboration with the county when it comes to conversations about safety and hiring.

“If nothing else, the biggest biggest thing of all is that we’re tired of people in the higher positions having these meetings and conversations about us instead of speaking with us and hearing us,” Herndon said. “You cannot possibly tell me about what I do and how I do it. You’re not in the trenches with us doing this.”