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Valdir Monteiro and his 6-year-old son arrived at his bus stop in Dorchester at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, 15 minutes early. The first-grader was nervous about the first day of school and didn’t want to go, but his father kept assuring him everything would be OK.
And then the two waited for two hours for a school bus that never arrived.
Across Boston, thousands of parents and students waited in frustration for buses that showed up late or not at all. More than 1,200 buses ran late, and more than 40 percent did not make it to school in time for the opening bell, according to the district. It was Boston’s best first-day performance in six years, but it did little to impress families.
The transportation snafus, which have become routine in recent years, added frustration and anxiety to a reopening already complicated by a lingering pandemic that has disrupted learning since March 2020.
“I don’t have a way to get him to school,” said Monteiro, a night-shift worker speaking in Portuguese, as he and his son sheltered from the rain under a store awning. Monteiro said he didn’t have a car. “I don’t know how to get him there.”
In Mattapan, a group of elementary-school-aged siblings gave up on their bus and took the T to school instead, while in Dorchester, not far from where Monteiro and his son waited for their bus, students bound for another school summoned Ubers to drive them. Some parents postponed their own workdays to drive their children to school, while others took to Twitter to vent about delays and cancellations.
This is the message parents/students are receiving this morning as they wait for their school bus. This is unacceptable. @BostonSchools @BCassellius @BTU66 pic.twitter.com/mNoTjkB4df— Leon Rivera (@BosLeonRivera) September 9, 2021
If this is a @BostonSchools goal: “increase the on-time arrival of school buses on the first day of school” that did not happen today. My kids were let off their bus 21 minutes after homeroom started today.— Anna White (@Anna__Wh1te) September 9, 2021
Meanwhile, a bus headed to an elementary school in South Boston overheated, drawing the sirens and flashing lights of a fire truck and police cruiser and forcing the six students on board to wait by the side of the road.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius had warned families a week ago to brace for major bus delays spurred by a severe driver shortage. Boston buses about half its 50,000 students to school daily, normally employing between 690 and 720 drivers. The district managed to find drivers to cover all of its routes Thursday, a spokesman said, but still lacked enough bus monitors, required to accompany some students with disabilities.
Overall, 57 percent of buses arrived at schools before the morning bell, the spokesman said. By comparison, 51 percent were on time in 2018 and only 43 percent in 2019, the first year Cassellius was at the helm. This year, about 100 buses arrived more than a half-hour late, adding extra stress on a day when many families were already worried about the surging Delta variant, the ongoing lack of a vaccine for children under 12, and the decision by state officials to ban most remote learning options this fall.
Monteiro finally gave up on his son’s bus and took the boy home for the day. Several other parents interviewed at bus stops Thursday said they planned to do the same.
Janey and Cassellius struck a more optimistic tone as they greeted students at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury.
“We are working very hard to make sure that all our routes are taken care of,” Janey told reporters outside the school. “Certainly getting them to school is part of it, but what happens in the school building is so important.”
“We know from past experience there usually are delays,” she added.
But the busing woes continued in the afternoon, with the district sending text notifications to parents minutes before dismissal alerting them that their children’s bus routes home were uncovered.
The bus problems came up during a mayoral debate Thursday night. Asked if she took any personal responsibility for late or missing buses on the first day of school, Janey said she was proud of the district’s performance, noting that all bus routes were covered and 57 percent of buses arrived at their schools on-time. Moreover, she noted, the district had its highest attendance for the first day of school on record, at 80 percent.
”We had a great first day,” Janey said.
Her opponents were not impressed. Fifty-seven percent “is not a passing grade. . . I don’t want my kids bringing that grade home from school,” said City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George. And rival Andrea Campbell, another city councilor, said she fielded calls from waiting parents Thursday morning. “The common refrain,” Campbell said, “was, ‘Well, we’re used to this.’ Unacceptable.”
Boston School Bus Drivers Union members had urged the district to postpone the start of in-person classes until more drivers are hired and routes are redrawn for greater efficiency, calling the routing the “worst fiasco” in their careers .
In Mattapan, Miriam Feliciano waited with her two children for 45 minutes before a school bus finally pulled up. One of her children has epilepsy and requires a bus monitor, but there wasn’t one on the bus.
“BPS waits until the last minute to do everything,” she said. “BPS needs accountability. There are not enough drivers. There are not enough monitors. There is not enough of anything.”
At schools around the city, though, some arriving youngsters felt glimmers of excitement break through their apprehension. Many school leaders worked hard to offer a warm and enthusiastic welcome to students, some of whom had not stepped inside schools in 18 months.
Jailene Diaz, whose son is starting fourth grade at the Orchard Gardens school in Roxbury, said remote learning was difficult, but she was too concerned about the coronavirus last year to send him to school in person for more than a few days.
Arriving back at his school at last on Thursday morning, her 9-year-old was ecstatic.
“He wanted to see his friends,” Diaz said as her son ran to greet the other children.
If you can hear my voice, clap once! Cause it’s the start of school here in Boston! @BostonSchools pic.twitter.com/7gs0SafoNe— Felicia Gans (@FeliciaGans) September 9, 2021
Diany Bonilla Lara, a 13-year-old starting eighth grade, stood outside Orchard Gardens with her three younger siblings, ages 12, 7, and 5. She said she felt a little nervous, after attending school in person for only about a month last year. But she is hopeful this year will be easier, back inside a classroom — at least that’s what she tells her younger siblings.
“I tell them you get to see more people and work with others, and you can do your work easier in person,” she said, as around her in the courtyard, teachers coaxed reluctant students from their parents and reminded everyone to keep their masks above their noses.
Aanari Herring said she was feeling “terrible” about school. But when she arrived at George Conley Elementary School in Roslindale, after a 20-minute walk, to find a first-day photo booth and a red carpet unfurled outside the front door, the 12-year-old began to warm up, hugging friends and greeting teachers.
For many parents, the day held an overwhelming mix of emotions, as the relief of a more “normal” first day alternated with jarring reminders of the public health crisis still underway.
Outside the Conley School, Enny Peguero snapped a selfie in front of the large brick building with her son, Eliezer, 10. It was his first time attending school in person since March 2020, as the family chose to keep him in online school last year.
The fifth-grader was excited to see friends again, but also scared.
He started crying. She wiped his tears, then hugged him.
“You’re safe, baby,” she told him, stroking his hand. “Don’t worry.”
City leaders are urging families to return permission forms for students to participate in free weekly coronavirus testing, a key mitigation strategy officials hope will keep students learning in classrooms. As of Sept. 2, only about 11,000 students had returned consent forms.
School districts will be required to notify the state of any COVID cases among students and staff members who entered school buildings within seven days of testing positive. The reports will be published weekly — a last-minute reversal from the state’s earlier plan to suspend those reports for the school year.
Jenna Russell of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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