When five sports teams across Boston Public Schools were left without a bus to take them to games this week, it highlighted yet another example of the district’s chronic transportation issues which have only worsened with pandemic-induced driver shortages.
It also drew sharp criticism from City Councilor Erin Murphy, the vice chairwoman of the council’s education subcommittee who has advocated for more investment in student athletics.
“If we’re stranding kids and not getting them to games, I believe the will isn’t there,” Murphy said. “I feel it’s another insult to our students. We’re not valuing them as students and now it seems we’re not valuing their teams in sports.”
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius pointed to the national driver shortage and said, “At BPS we too are frustrated... Our student athletes have achieved excellence in academics and athletics, and deserve to participate in competitions with their peers in other school districts.”
Mayor Michelle Wu did not respond to requests for comment on the issue, but her press secretary Ricardo Patrón said, “We are looking into this issue and will work with BPS to minimize the impacts of the national school bus driver shortage on our students.”
Every day this week alone, student-athletes and coaches across the city were left standing or scrambling for contingencies, the Globe reported. With buses absent, coaches have turned to public transit and long walks or leaned on students to drive themselves. The bus problems have resulted in postponed games, players showing up late as they travel on their own, and raised concerns of student safety.
Rocco Zizza, the longtime coach of the Boston Latin Academy softball team, said some of his players had to drive themselves to a game in Lynnfield Friday.
“If the kids drive there, and there’s an accident, are we putting the kids at risk?” Zizza asked. “I would like to be notified or explained exactly what we should be doing.”
But no such explanation has been forthcoming from the administration, Zizza said.
BPS officials said a shortage of drivers has caused buses to be unavailable for 15 percent of trips for sports teams, with travel to games outside the city disproportionately impacted. District spokesperson Gabrielle Farrell said the district has contacted multiple bus companies trying to cover trips to games, but came up empty due to driver shortages.
The issue is not new for the district. Chronically late student pickups and drop-offs and even no-show buses have plagued Boston for years, particularly at the beginning of school years. On the first day of school this year, over 40 percent of buses arrived at school after bell times. More than 1,200 buses ran late — and that was Boston’s best first-day performance in six years. Low-income students are often the most affected by delayed and missing buses, as their families may lack cars or the time off work to pick up and drop off their kids, particularly when they are given little or no notice that there will not be a bus that day.
Part of the problem may be out of the district’s hands. Governor Charlie Baker activated the National Guard in the fall to drive buses in several other school districts, amid a nationwide driver shortage. The driver workforce, already barely sufficient, was worsened by coronavirus health risks and the tight labor market. And the problem appears to have worsened across the country in recent weeks, with school districts and transit agencies pleading for help, warning of delays and even changing schedules.
BPS has been in a daily driver shortage since last summer, the district said. Despite its bus contractor Transdev hiring 61 drivers since June — the most drivers it ever has in one year — just as many have left or gone on leave in that time. Over the last week, an average of 2.8 percent of buses per day have been without drivers, up from 1.9 percent on average for the school year.
Transportation has been an issue for BPS athletics since the pandemic began, Zizza said. Boston Latin does not have its own fields, so its teams have always had to travel for practices and games.
“Those buses have been eliminated,” he said.
Murphy called it part of a broad underinvestment in athletics in Boston Public Schools.
“We spend $78 per student [on athletics], less than half of the state average,” Murphy said. “That the few kids that do have access to sports teams are not even able to get to their games is heartbreaking.”
But the larger busing problems in Boston predate the pandemic. A scathing review of the district released by the state in March 2020 described an inefficient system, and when Education Commissioner Jeff Riley announced a second review in March 2022, he again cited the transportation system as an area of concern. Boston Public Schools officials have received a copy of the review, but it has not yet been made public.
In its ongoing superintendent search, the search panel is seeking someone “capable of transforming transportation service to ensure excellent year-round transportation,” a common refrain from parents at listening sessions.
“The district has not let up and works every day with our TransDev bus contractor, and as we continue to proactively engage recruitment efforts ranging from marketing and job fairs and offering bonuses to increase the number of bus drivers,” Cassellius said. “We will continue to turn over every stone until there is a bus driver for every route, including those for our student athletes.”
The proposed fiscal year 2023 district budget, which begins in July, includes a 5.4 percent increase to the transportation budget, bringing it to $109 million.
“We definitely have resources to make it happen,” Murphy said. “We can do better.”
The councilor said she and some colleagues are considering taking action on the issue at their meeting Wednesday, noting they would have to move quickly to help current students.
“If it’s a week, two weeks, three weeks, the season’s over,” she said. “For senior athletes, this may be their last opportunity to play a team sport.”