Noemy Rodriguez was beyond anxious.
It was almost 8 p.m. on Boston’s first day of school and her fourth-grade son, Wayne Montoya, still had not been dropped off by his bus.
An administrator at the Thomas Edison K-8 in Brighton assured her that the boy was on the way. But Wayne, who has special needs, and dozens of other children from across the city piled into the only bus on hand, extending the route and delaying the drop-off. He finally arrived at 8:45 p.m., more than five hours after school let out.
The school can’t guarantee such an ordeal won’t happen again, Rodriguez said, and she is too scared to put him back on the bus. But she has no other way to get him home.
It’s been two weeks since Wayne has attended school.
”He’s traumatized and I was terrified,” Rodriguez said in Spanish. “I can’t send him to school if he can’t get home.”
Two weeks into the school year, Boston continues to struggle to cover all of its bus routes, forcing some students, like Wayne, to miss school. BPS leaders say the district has had the best bus performance in years, but for parents who continue to witness their children’s buses be canceled or go uncovered, the improvement isn’t enough.
The city has stumbled over the past several years with busing at the beginning of the school year, in part because of its complicated routing system. This year, planning got off to a slow start because central office administrators delayed sharing school assignment information and the district wasn’t able to design the most efficient routes. As a result, the school department needed more drivers than in other years, according to the district, at a time when there is a shortage.
While other districts nationwide also can’t hire enough drivers, some have turned to creative solutions, such as paying parents to drive their children to school. Several Boston-area school districts accepted the state’s offer to have the National Guard drive children in specialized vans. Boston declined the help because it doesn’t have the appropriate vehicles the guard members are trained to drive, according to the district.
On Monday, 67 percent of afternoon buses arrived at school on time, according to district data, and all afternoon buses arrived within 30 minutes of school ending.
Last week, district figures showed more than 90 percent of morning and afternoon buses arrived at school within 30 minutes of the scheduled pickup time. The district goal is for 95 percent of buses to arrive on time.
“We’re improving,” said Xavier Andrews, communications director for the district. “But there is some confusion about the messages we’re sending out. . . . We’re working to resolve the problem as soon as possible.”
When the district learns there isn’t a driver available to cover an afternoon bus route, it texts and calls a parent to alert them in the early afternoon. Marissa Freedman has received these notifications most afternoons since school started, saying the district “does not have a driver available right now” to take her daughter home.
The messages send her into a panic, and she tries to arrange another ride home. Freedman’s considered keeping the sixth-grader home on days when she has to work and doesn’t have a backup plan.
“I can’t not know what’s going to happen with my child,” said Freedman, a single mother who works as a nurse.
She said it’s possible the bus eventually comes much later for her daughter on the days she’s already found a ride for her. “But they should tell us that’s what’s happening,” Freedman said.
In Roxbury, Sonali Del Valle has kept her daughter home several times since the district often can’t send a morning bus. The eighth-grader receives door-to-door transportation to Up Academy Boston in South Boston because she has developmental delays. Last week, the bus didn’t come four out of five days, but Del Valle was able to drive her twice. This week, the bus didn’t come Monday or Tuesday and the girl stayed home.
“It’s not fair that there are students having to miss out due to no reliable transportation,” said Del Valle.
Boston typically uses between 690 and 720 drivers to bus roughly 25,000 students a day. Drivers earn around $26 an hour. The city’s transportation budget is $130 million.
The pandemic and driver concerns about working in close contact with unvaccinated children have exacerbated the preexisting driver shortage nationwide. The shortage caused Worcester to cancel an afterschool program. In Boston, the shortage has led to absurd situations. Last week, a charter school rented a party bus complete with neon lights and stripper poles to take students on a field trip.
Governor Charlie Baker stepped in last week by activating the National Guard to help districts. So far, about 10 districts including Quincy, Brockton, and Lowell are using guard members dressed in fatigues to drive students to and from school. It is unclear how long the state will offer such assistance.
Philadelphia schools have offered parents $300 a month if they drive their children to school. Boston should consider the idea, said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, a nonprofit that organizes parents, and is encouraging families to carpool. And for parents who don’t have cars, the organization believes the district should give them stipends to call ride-hailing services such as Uber. “They need to do something. These kids can’t just not go to school,” said Reyes.
As for Rodriguez, who lives in East Boston, she is prepared to keep Wayne home until she feels certain the district can deliver him safely and on time. Rodriguez said she has no other alternatives, as she doesn’t have a car or know how to drive.
After Wayne came home that first night crying after spending more than five hours on the bus without food or a bathroom, Rodriguez tried to transfer him to a school closer to home but was told there aren’t any in the neighborhood that can support his disability.
She prays BPS will soon will fix its transportation issues — and that she won’t get in trouble for keeping him home.
“It hurts that my son isn’t receiving the education that he deserves,” Rodriguez said.