For many Boston families, the new school year that begins Thursday was already clouded by uncertainty as the surging Delta variant threatens to shut classrooms, particularly those filled with unvaccinated students.
But now dire warnings about late-running school buses and canceled routes are adding further anxiety, as the school system confronts an acute shortage of drivers and monitors, and concerns from drivers that the routes are rife with problems. Their union has called for the postponement of in-person classes, a move school officials have resisted.
Instead, families won’t know until Thursday morning whether their children will have a school bus, making some parents fearful kids could be left stranded on a morning with thunderstorms in the forecast.
“We are very concerned that our most vulnerable students may not have access to all of their [special education] services, which in some cases calls for door-to-door transportation and one-on-one bus monitors,” said Roxi Harvey, who chairs the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council. “I honestly don’t know what to expect now and am concerned for families that don’t have the work flexibility, income, or resources to secure alternative transportation.”
The school system buses about 25,000 students a day, relying on about 700 drivers.
Meanwhile, the busing crisis has turned political during the final stretch of the city’s preliminary round of the mayoral race, with one candidate after another accusing the school system, and in some cases Acting Mayor Kim Janey, of poor preparation.
The heightened tensions come a week after Janey and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius warned families to expect significant delays or cancellations of bus service. School officials estimated at the time that Transdev, the company that oversees the bus fleet, was short by upward of 60 drivers, and the system also had openings for about 100 bus monitors. Since then, only three new drivers have been hired.
Officials said they will try to consolidate as many routes as possible to prevent students from losing bus service, but that could make another problem worse. In addition to labor shortages, officials acknowledged last week that because of some late student assignment data, the transportation department ended up creating less-efficient bus routes.
The bus drivers union termed the routing problems “massive,” noting that because of outdated information, the routes included some stops scheduled for students who had moved away or recently graduated.
“Routing for the 2021–2022 school year is by far the worst fiasco we’ve witnessed in our careers,” the union said in a press release. “It would appear that it was the result of mismanagement and incompetent routing.”
The drivers urged school officials to keep buses off the road until the problems are fixed, saying “we believe the opening of in-person BPS should be postponed.”
In one positive development Tuesday night, school officials, Transdev, and the bus drivers union reached agreement on extending the union’s contract, which expired this summer, to Nov. 15. As part of the deal, drivers will receive $50 daily bonuses for the first week of school if they show up to work.
“If our drivers are not absent and report to the bus yards, we should be good to go,” said Xavier Andrews, a school spokesman, noting Transdev has more than 100 standby drivers, which typically encompasses employees who hold other jobs but are also licensed to drive buses.
In the mayoral campaign, several candidates criticized the school department for the late-developing problem and attacked Janey.
During the mayoral debate Wednesday night, City Councilor Andrea Campbell said the city had known there was a bus driver shortage. “We should have been proactive in planning for this,” said Campbell, whose 4-year-old son is entering the public schools this year. “In the middle of a pandemic the last thing we want to do is add any additional stress or burden to our families.”
Candidate John Barros, a former Boston economic development chief and School Committee member, said at the debate that several bus drivers whom he spoke to called this year’s start “the worst of any school year that they’d been a part of.” And prior to the debate, Barros laid the blame at Janey’s feet. “I don’t see any urgency or creative problem-solving from Acting Mayor Janey to fill the gaps and get our students to school safely and on time.”
Other candidates also attacked Janey at the debate and beforehand, with many calling the late-developing bus problem “unacceptable.”
“It is unacceptable that families are still wondering whether their students will be able to make it to school safely and on time for the first day,” City Councilor Michelle Wu said in a statement.
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, a former Boston school teacher whose four children are enrolled in the school system, said, “We shouldn’t add yet another burden, yet alone one that could have been avoided with proper planning and communication from city leadership. I’m worried about what the first day of school will look like for our educators, kids, and families with the clear disorganization.”
A school spokesman said a variety of factors contribute to uncovered routes on any given day, including driver absences, while Janey defended her administration’s overall handling of the bus system.
At the debate Wednesday night, Janey said she was “encouraged” by the agreement with the union for the drivers, and acknowledged “there is a lot of anxiety around the first day of school,” adding: “Even though it will be difficult, we will get through it. We’ll get through it together, supporting our young people.”