Mano Katsompenakis’ 13-year-old son, Yiorgo, had a pretty simple commute to the O’Bryant School of Math and Science in Roxbury last year. He would catch an Orange Line train in Charlestown at around 6:30 a.m. and if all went smoothly with the T he would arrive about a half hour later at Roxbury Crossing, a short walk to the O’Bryant.
But when Boston Public Schools reopen Sept. 8, right in the middle of the 30-day shutdown of the entire Orange Line, Yiorgo and potentially thousands of other students could face more daunting commutes, with shuttle buses replacing trains to carry passengers along often congested city streets.
While the exact routes have not been made public, Katsompenakis imagines Yiorgo would board a shuttle bus at his usual stop, Community College, and eventually would pass through Downtown Crossing, Chinatown, and Back Bay before entering Roxbury.
“This is going to be horrible for the students,” said Katsompenakis, who estimates the trip could take two to three times longer, forcing Yiorgo to get up much earlier. “It’s really surprising that somebody decided to shut down the entire Orange Line during the school year.”
The closure of the Orange Line from the evening of Aug. 19 until the morning of Sept. 19, for badly needed track repairs, presents another daunting challenge to a school system that has struggled for years to get students to and from school on time and to control transportation spending.
The school system, which also provides transportation to charter and private school students, has increasingly relied on the MBTA as a way to reduce the cost of running its own buses, which consumes nearly 10 percent of the $1.3 billion annual school budget. In recent years, BPS stopped busing most seventh- and eighth-graders and instead gave them T passes, pushing the overall number of students relying on the MBTA to over 23,000.
For many of those students, the Orange Line provides a critical link, whether directly or in combination with other subways and buses. At least eight BPS high schools are a short distance from the Orange Line, collectively serving nearly 6,000 students, according to a Globe review of state data. School officials estimate approximately 4,676 students live within a mile of an Orange Line stop and receive a T pass from BPS.
Officials at the MBTA, Boston Public Schools, and the city say they will be working to devise measures for students as well as all riders to ease the commuting hardship during the shutdown.
While Governor Charlie Baker has encouraged employers to let employees work from home, it seems unlikely that the shutdown will result in a return to remote learning in Boston. State regulations don’t allow districts to count remote learning as instructional time — unless they are running a virtual school or a student with a medical issue needs home-tutoring. In a letter to parents last Wednesday, Boston school officials stressed their commitment to in-person learning during the shutdown.
Remote learning also doesn’t have the support of the Boston Teachers Union. “I don’t think it’s a good solution,” said Jessica Tang, the union’s president, in an interview.
Better options, Tang said, would include providing dedicated shuttles for students and school staff, increasing access to parking lots for staff who now might drive to school, and easing district policies on student tardiness caused by the longer MBTA commutes.
Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, said in a statement that his agency and city officials are devising the most efficient transportation alternatives for all commuters, including students.
“The final plans will be announced as soon as MBTA and city transportation officials finish constructing viable and effective alternatives for all commuters,” he said.
Boston school officials pledged in a statement to update families “on a regular basis leading up to and throughout the Orange Line service shutdown” on any new developments, including alternative transportation options.
The idea of creating dedicated shuttles is gaining traction among students, parents, and staff. The MBTA, for instance, already provides supplemental service on some bus routes, including many heading to Boston Latin School. Whether the MBTA could increase those opportunities remains unclear.
One option parents aren’t banking on is BPS stepping in with its own yellow buses. The school system has been grappling with a shortage of drivers, like many other districts nationwide, and other problems, including poorly constructed bus routes. Consequently, BPS is under a new state mandate to increase the timeliness of school buses.
During the last school year, 10 percent of the district’s buses didn’t arrive at school in time for the opening bell. Under a district-improvement plan it negotiated with Boston, the state is demanding that BPS shrink the level of tardiness to no more than 5 percent.
Meanwhile, many students and parents are poised to take matters into their own hands. Katsompenakis said he and wife are talking with other Charlestown families about carpooling to the O’Bryant.
In Roxbury, Tariq Moreno, 16, will encounter the hardship of the Orange Line closure much sooner than most students. He begins classes at Brooke High School, an independent charter school in Mattapan, on Aug. 18, one day before the shutdown. Using the Orange Line for a portion of the commute is the fastest way there — Moreno lives near the Jackson Square stop in Jamaica Plain — and he also boards an Orange train to get home from his after-school job in Downtown Crossing.
While there are MBTA buses near his home that he can ride to Mattapan, he wonders whether there will be enough room, given other Orange Line riders will likely pile on, too. And being on a packed bus during a pandemic, he added, is nerve-wracking.
“I might have to make a PowerPoint presentation to my mom on why she should drop me off at school,” said Moreno, a member of the Hyde Square Task Force, a youth advocacy organization.
Congested shuttles, especially in sweltering temperatures, also worry Ismara Diaz, 14, a member of Sociedad Latina, a youth advocacy organization. Diaz was planning on taking the Orange Line from Jackson Square to English High School in Jamaica Plain, where she will be starting her freshman year.
“I get overheated a lot and can faint from the heat,” she said, noting she also gets nervous in crowded places.
Danny Vargas, 17, heads back to classes at City on a Hill Charter School near Nubian Square at the end of August. On most days, he said, it’s usually a toss-up between using only an MBTA bus or the Orange Line part of the way, going with whatever shows up first at Jackson Square, which is close to home. But the buses now might be too packed to get on, he said.
“To close trains for a month seems a little too much, given how many students take the Orange Line to school and home,” he said.
Adria Watson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. The Great Divide explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.