The problem with chronically late school buses in Boston has gotten so severe this year that some parents are now turning to ride-hailing services to ferry their children.
Such a scene unfolded last Friday night at the Eliot Innovation K-8 School in the North End, where 52 children waited more than three hours after their 3:05 p.m. dismissal for a bus that never showed up. Frantic administrators — after learning belatedly the driver had called in sick — contacted parents. Many parents swung by, others called for Ubers.
The incident was the most egregious at the Eliot, which like many Boston schools has been marred with late buses in the morning and afternoon since opening day last Thursday. Many Eliot families have waited more than an hour for buses to travel to neighborhoods as close as Charlestown, just on the other side of the Charles River.
“It’s one of those things that makes us consider moving to the suburbs,” said Alicia Piedalue, a Charlestown mother, who has three children at the Eliot and has grown frustrated with the annual tardy buses. “Why haven’t they figured this out? For so many children, buses are access to education, but the transportation system is totally broken.”
“You would never forgive teachers and principals if they were not ready for school on the first day,” she added. “We would be appalled.”
Yet the problem shows no signs of improving. Like old watches that keep losing time, buses this year are running even later than last year, despite the hiring of an additional 31 drivers last month.
On the first day of classes, just 43 percent of buses showed up to school on time, down from more than half last year. On-time performance on the second, third, and fourth days ranged between 65 percent and 67 percent, down from last year when those days ranged between 71 percent and 80 percent.
On Wednesday morning, on-time performance finally tied with last year’s rate of 72 percent.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who has repeatedly warned families since the first day about the late buses in letters and robocalls using her own voice, vowed in an interview this week that she would remedy the late buses.
“It’s not acceptable,” she said of the late buses. “We have to unpack what are the issues short term and long term and find solutions. This cannot happen again next year.”
On-time performance at dismissal has also slid off course over the first four days, with 65 percent to 74 percent of buses showing up to school by dismissal time, down from 73 percent to 82 percent.
Aside from hiring additional drivers, Cassellius said the system also brought in 60 more attendants to monitor children on the buses. (A lack of monitors in previous years caused delays in drivers leaving the bus yards.)
But she added the problems run deeper than staffing levels. One area she said she would like to focus on next summer is drafting bus routes sooner and trying them out more quickly. Currently, routes typically get on-the-road tests in the days leading up to school.
Boston school officials have also offered up some rosier statistics, issuing data on buses that reach school within 30 minutes and 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival time. For example, 98 percent of buses arrived at school within 30 minutes of their scheduled time on the second, fourth, and fifth day of classes.
While many parents find Cassellius’s frankness refreshing, some question whether the system will truly change or if the delays are a consequence of repeatedly redrawing routes in order to save money. Student transportation costs consume more than 10 percent of Boston’s more than $1 billion budget and the City Council is pressuring school officials to cut costs.
“They have three months to create bus routes and practice runs,” said Catia Mendes, whose daughter attends MATCH Community Day Charter School in Hyde Park. “It’s not like they can’t prepare; they are just ignoring it.”
Mendes’s daughter and many of her classmates encountered a harrowing night last week when their bus kept driving around — seemingly lost — and then broke down after overheating due to faulty hoses. Police were called to the scene, as dozens of children stood on the side of the road while parents rushed to pick them up.
Exacerbating the problem was poor communication from the school district, which provides transportation to charter schools, about what was going on. Although the school dismisses at 4 p.m., Mendes said she first received a message from BPS almost two hours later, saying the bus was running “an hour late.”
“Our kids were crying,” Mendes said. “Ten-year-olds were calling parents or texting pictures telling them where they drove by so the parents could find the bus.”
A day after the Sept. 3 incident Cassellius issued an apology, promising to step up communication efforts.
Jennifer Hill, whose son attends third grade at Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester, has given up on the buses — at least for this month — and signed him up for an after-school program, giving her a cushion to pick him up. Since school opened last week, she has received a steady flow of text messages from the school about severely late or no-show buses.
On Monday, she went to the school at 5 p.m. — more than an hour after dismissal — to pick up her son because the bus had been cancelled. A hallway was lined with children patiently waiting for buses while their teachers kept them busy with activities.
“It’s frustrating for us, but it must be maddening for others,” she said. “We are lucky because we have a car.”