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NYC school bus delays reach highest level in five years

School bus delays have peaked this fall at higher levels than at any point in the past five years, figures revealed at a city council hearing on Monday show, posing a growing challenge for families who depend on yellow buses to transport their children to school.

Last month alone, there were nearly 14,500 school bus delays, lasting an average of 41 minutes. This represents approximately 10,600 delays averaging 37 minutes in October 2021.

The number and duration of lateness last month was higher than in any other month in the past five school years, according to the The city council’s analysiswhich is based on self-reported data from bus companies.

City officials pointed out that the self-reported nature of the statistics can make them unreliable and noted that the data shows heavy traffic accounts for a significant portion of the increase in delays. But many advocates and elected officials said on Monday that the bus system appears to be under strain.

“In 2018, the Education Committee held a hearing on [the Office of Pupil Transportation’s] failure to provide students with reliable school bus transportation,” said Rita Joseph, chair of the committee, during a monitoring hearing on school bus transportation. “The only thing that seems to have changed since then is that the problem has gotten worse.”

The New York City school bus system is responsible for transporting about 150,000 students to school at a budgeted cost of $1.6 billion this year, according to the Independent Budget Office. But families have struggled for years with delayed buses, no-shows or even being assigned a bus route. Some of the city’s most vulnerable students, including 65,000 students with disabilities — rely on buses to transport them to programs that are often outside their immediate vicinity.

The late buses took their toll on Jalissa and her 6-year-old son, Deandre. Last year, the family moved to a domestic violence shelter in the Bronx, at least an hour and fifteen minutes from Deandre Elementary School in Jamaica, Queens. Last year, the bus was so often late that Jalissa was fired from her job at a food preparation and delivery company.

“My manager was really caring and tried to be as forgiving as possible,” she said. But “I was fired because I was constantly late every day” because of school bus delays. (Jalissa asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her privacy.)

The situation has not improved this year. Despite help from Advocates for Children, a non-profit group, Jalissa struggled to get a bus at the start of the school year, even though the required paperwork was completed on time, according to her lawyer. She took Deandre to school on public transportation, leaving their shelter at 6:30 a.m. for the hour-and-a-half subway and bus ride, trips she paid for out of pocket.

Even after Jalissa finally gets a bus about a month into the school year, it’s almost always at least an hour late. This has left her in an impossible position, as she does not want to transfer her son to a new school. “I am very serious about my child’s education,” she says. “I don’t want to change his school.”

At the same time, she worries about the impact of missed classes and long waits. In addition, the unpredictability of bus schedules made her reluctant to seek new employment. Frequent calls and complaints to the bus company and the Department of Education Student Transportation Office did not resolve the problem.

“It’s still in development; he shouldn’t be an hour late,” she said. “Something has to change.”

At Monday’s City Council hearing, Education Department officials said a shortage of bus drivers was partly to blame for the disruption in service, even though officials from the previous administration insisted it was no problem. At the start of the school year, the system was short by about 500 drivers, said Glenn Risbrook, senior executive director of student transportation for the Department of Education. In some cases, this required drivers to travel two routes, one after the other.

“Often it is our most needy students who are on these routes who end up without permanent drivers and therefore find themselves in these situations,” Risbrook said. He added that the shortage had fallen to 313 drivers and that the city was working with bus companies “to get qualified drivers on the roads as quickly as possible.”

But officials also acknowledged that getting drivers back to work can be a challenge after thousands of them were furloughed following the closure of school buildings.

“They were laid off, in a global pandemic, with no pay, no pension contributions, and most importantly, no health care,” said Kevin Moran, director of school operations for the education department. “And so when we’re talking about the driver shortage and trying to get people back into the system, we have a lot of work to do to rebuild trust.”

In the meantime, city officials said they were paying for ride-sharing services to help fill the gaps and also pointed to a long delay GPS tracking system which is supposed to give parents real-time information on bus locations, help the education department create better routes, and more comprehensively track delays. (The Department of Education is piloting the GPS system in District 26 in Queens, but a spokesperson didn’t provide a specific timeline for rolling it out citywide.)

Proponents said the ride-sharing solution is flawed because it’s not always explicitly offered to families and requires a carer to accompany their child, often disrupting work routines.

“It doesn’t really work for all families and it doesn’t solve the bus problem,” said Janyll Canals, Robin Hood Project Director at Advocates for Children who testified at Monday’s city council hearing. “Several families I’ve worked with don’t know it’s an option until they come to us.”

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering New York’s public schools. Contact Alex at [email protected]

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