Fifteen-year-old Steven Pinto started his journey for the first day of school Thursday at 5:30 a.m., catching a Blue Line train at the Airport MBTA stop. Before the Orange Line closure, Pinto only needed 45 minutes to get to Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury. By the time he reached school grounds Thursday, he had been traveling for nearly 2 hours—with only five minutes to spare.
Good thing he started early because navigating the shuttle buses, which are temporarily replacing the Orange Line, proved tricky.
“I got confused,” the high school sophomore explained. “I found out about those shuttle buses [this morning].”
The Orange Line shutdown added a new dimension to the transportation problems that have plagued the Boston Public Schools for years. With the shutdown causing traffic to spike, families braced for the continuation of a more familiar first-day-of school problem: school buses running woefully late.
The collision of the two transportation crises couldn’t come at a worse time for the 49,000-student school system, which is under state orders to get 95 percent or more of its buses to run on time each month.
Yet, only half of the buses showed up on time Thursday morning, a decrease from 54 percent last year. A school spokesperson attributed the decline to Orange Line traffic congestion and a crash earlier that morning at a school bus yard in Readville. One person was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, according to police.
The transportation contractor for Boston Public Schools, Transdev, which oversees the bus fleet, also struggled to get all the bus routes covered. There were no drivers for some 42 bus trips, even though a week earlier Acting Superintendent Drew Echelson had told the School Committee the district’s bus fleet had significantly more drivers than it ever had before.
Throughout the day, Echelson and Mayor Michelle Wu tried to convey optimism about BPS’ ability to get students to school on time and appeared unaware that there would ultimately be a shortage of drivers.
“It is an incredible feat to have every route covered in such a large district,” Wu said earlier in the day before the numbers were released. “Many districts are even struggling to get a much smaller footprint covered.”
Still, something unexpected always happens, Wu noted.
Wu and Echelson started their day before sunrise at the Readville bus yard, where the collision involving school buses occurred, giving a pep talk to drivers before departing to the Forest Hills T stop on the Orange Line to greet students taking shuttle buses to school.
By midday, Echelson provided a more measured, but still somewhat upbeat, assessment on transportation, saying that on-time bus performance is “not exactly where we wanted it to be, but a significant improvement over last year.”
While the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education acknowledged on Thursday that the Orange Line shutdown might undermine on-time performance, it continued to press BPS to do better.
“We understand that the Orange line closure poses a challenge to students who would usually take that subway line. For students who take a school bus, it is still important for all school bus routes to be covered by a driver and for those buses to run on time to the greatest extent possible given the additional traffic on the roads from the Orange line closure,” the department said in a statement.
The inability of Transdev and BPS to fully staff the bus fleet Thursday was the scenario that many parents had feared the most.
In Charlestown, Marcie Carmody got a bad feeling about whether her son’s bus would show up. When she logged onto BPS’s school bus tracker around 5:45 a.m., her son’s bus wasn’t popping up—even though it was supposed to arrive at 6:11.
It took her five minutes to get through to the BPS transportation hot line and a friendly operator eventually informed her of the news she didn’t want to hear: Her son’s bus didn’t have a driver. About 15 minutes later — after her son should have been picked up — she received an official text message from BPS notifying her about the uncovered route.
Although a bus eventually came an hour late and just as classes were about to begin, her husband had already driven their son to school.
“It’s a frustrating way to start the school year with no driver again,” said Carmody, noting that her son’s bus didn’t have a driver about 20 times last year. “There’s a lot of good in BPS but they have to get kids to school.”
In other parts of the city, scores of school buses were arriving late by as much as a half hour or longer.
Siblings Mckhi and Akiya Turner, 11 and 12, sat on the sidewalk of Dudley Street for more than 45 minutes before their bus to the Nathan Hale Elementary School arrived around 8:50 a.m.
If their bus hadn’t arrived by 9 a.m., they said they would’ve given up and walked home, which has happened in the past. In those cases, Mckhi plays video games, while Akiya just goes back to sleep, they said.
“I’m not trying to miss the first day of school,” said Mckhi. “And I can’t go [to school] on Friday because I have a doctor’s appointment.”
Marisa and Marco Fernandez, 12 and 11, waited on the corner of West Cottage Street and Dudley in Dorchester for their first day at James F. Condon School.
Their bus wasn’t slated to arrive until 8 a.m., but given the poor track records of BPS buses in years past, students lined up nearly a half-hour in advance to ensure they caught their ride to school.
Their mother, Marisa Teixeira, said the bus was often late last year, sometimes impeding the education of her children.
“I would have to bring them to school by car,” Teixeira said, translated from Spanish to English by her daughter.
Despite late bus arrivals last year, she is optimistic that this school year will start on a more timely note.
The bus eventually pulled up, just over 30 minutes late.
Globe correspondents Katie Mogg, Daniel Kool, and Alexander Thompson contributed to this report.
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