School busing problems continue to be exacerbated by the pandemic this school year, some New York City parents say, pointing to staff shortages and confusion over routes and schedules.
While shortages of drivers and staffers to work on yellow school buses were an issue long before the pandemic, problems have mounted in the past two years as hybrid learning has complicated schedules and low pay caused employees to leave, said Sara Catalinotto, founder of the Parents to Improve School Transportation advocacy group at a virtual rally Friday.
The group has launched a campaign to improve bus services, increase bus driver pay and implement better pandemic control measures, with a planned march on City Hall next month.
The staffing shortage had grown so dire by last September, that Governor Kathy Hochul launched an outreach program to more than 550,000 holders of commercial driver's licenses to recruit more drivers for school districts across the state.
The city Department of Education, which oversees the bus services through its Office of Pupil Transportation, reportedly spends about $1.25 billion annually on bus contracts.
“Every day we provide approximately 150,000 students with quality transportation to and from school, and we are constantly working to improve service,” said DOE spokesperson Jenna Lyle in an emailed statement. “We work closely with families, bus companies and schools to ensure a safe and efficient experience for all students and staff – anything less is unacceptable.”
The DOE said “a vast majority” of the public school bus routes run “smoothly,” and some parents did note an improvement over the problems they experienced at the beginning of the school year. Kate Troy of Jackson Heights, whose daughter attends a charter school in Maspeth, reported that, after initial delays and miscommunication, the current bus drivers were “super nice” and consistently picking up and dropping off her child on schedule.
But it’s unclear how mask requirements and contact tracing are being handled on buses, as one parent said.
“During the omicron surge there was an increase in cases from the bus because the kids are taking their masks off and no one is monitoring that,” said Samantha Schupack, who gave up on trying to use the bus for her daughter to get to elementary school in Crown Heights.
The DOE said bus companies are required to enforce mask mandates on their vehicles and that case notifications are determined based on the health department’s protocols.
Parents of students with special needs said they were especially hurt by the pandemic’s effect on staffing shortages, with a lack of nurses or paraprofessionals (known as paras) to chaperone students with disabilities.
“Some students with documented medical and or behavioral needs require another trained adult on a yellow bus assigned to support and monitor only them, that one student, so that they arrive alive and well without any incident to them or others,” said Rima Izquierdo, a District 75 parent leader from the Bronx at Friday's rally. “But every day either a bus shows up with no para, or no nurse, or a para with no bus, no driver or no route. That student is stuck at home, no fault of their own and no fault of the family.”
The city has resorted to paying for private car service for some families of kids with special needs to get to school, but the students can’t travel alone.
“My son was offered Ubers and car service to get to school. And not only does my child have to take this transport, but I had to go with him” on a four-hour-long commute, said Brooklyn parent Beth Eisgrau-Heller at the same rally.
She said the city needs to find better ways to address the “systemic problems” behind the staffing shortage.
“COVID nearly made the wheels of the bus fall off. It didn't cause the driver shortage,” Eisgrau-Heller said. “This shortage is so stark because there were no measures in place to make sure that there's driver and transit worker retention.”
The DOE said it’s working to “ensure schools have the necessary staffing supports.”