A new Boston school year should bring clean slates and high hopes. Instead, it’s starting with an all-too-familiar pain.
Last week, the school department warned parents that, because of an acute labor shortage, some students might be picked up by school buses late, or not at all. And that families affected would not know whether their kids would be stranded until Thursday morning — the first day of school, for heaven’s sake.
How is anybody supposed to work with that? Particularly parents with jobs, multiple kids, and other challenges?
To make matters worse, the union representing bus drivers urged that the first day of in-person classes be postponed, blaming the school department for “mismanagement and incompetent routing.”
Welcome back to school, kids! Good luck getting there!
The first day of the year is always messy when it comes to transportation. A bunch of kids are going to new schools, routes have been redesigned, families have moved, and traffic is misery. And this drivers’ union is not one to let a crisis go to waste when it comes to negotiating better pay and benefits, even if it means panicking parents.
But the start of this particular school year is already a stress-fest, with parents trying to keep their kids safe amid a continuing pandemic. Kids under 12 still can’t get vaccinations. And the Baker administration is so far standing firm on its ban on remote learning. So if kids get COVID, or have to quarantine it’s not clear how they’re supposed to learn. And it’s definitely unclear how their parents are supposed to do their jobs.
COVID has supercharged the labor issues that bedevil Boston school transportation. Bus companies all over the country are facing shortages as drivers have retired or found other jobs since the start of the pandemic. There are easier ways to earn money than sitting in an enclosed space with unvaccinated littles, trying to keep them in line as you negotiate traffic.
When I spoke to Boston School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius on Wednesday afternoon, she was cautiously optimistic that the driver shortage would not be as dire as it looked last week. The drivers’ current contract has just been extended into November, she said, and those who show up for the first week of school will get an extra $50 per day. Stand-by drivers will work unclaimed routes, and there will be extra people answering phones at the city’s transportation hotline (617-635-9520).
Bus company Transdev has 35 new drivers in the pipeline. And Cassellius said she is determined to solve another chronic labor shortage: The annual dearth of bus monitors, the low-wage workers required to accompany students with disabilities.
“If we are able to have our bus drivers...at work tomorrow, we should be able to have most of our routes covered,” Cassellius said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be disruptions...but we want to assure our families we are doing everything possible.”
That is cold comfort to parents like Al Norton, a single father from Roslindale whose two 13-year-olds go to different schools. He drives his son to Boston Latin Academy each morning, but his daughter takes the bus to the Joyce Kilmer school in West Roxbury. He got a robocall from the district last week to tell him there might not be a bus for her, and that he won’t know until he’s already on the road with his son.
“Will we get a call if she has a bus? If she doesn’t have a bus?” Norton said. “If I have to transport two kids, it leaves me a very small window in which to earn a living.” And Norton, who works in property management, has more flexibility than many working parents.
“I don’t expect the powers that be to snap their fingers and hire all these people,” Norton said. “But what’s been going on all summer?”
If the first days of the 2021-22 school year go badly, you can expect that question to become a big one in this last week of the mayoral preliminary campaign. Unlike expanding charter schools -- currently a source of conflict between Acting Mayor Kim Janey and Councilor Andrea Campbell -- the mayor actually has control over school transportation. Her rivals will try to lay parents’ woes at Janey’s doorstep. Which only ups the stakes here.
A lot is riding on those yellow buses.