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A student walks off the bus on the first day of school in 2022.

A student walks off the bus on the first day of school in 2022. Chicago Public Schools currently only has about half the bus drivers it needs to transport students for the upcoming school year, which begins on Aug. 21.

Ashlee Rezin

Chicago Public Schools lacks half the bus drivers it needs for start of classes

Chicago Public Schools says it only has about half the bus drivers it needs to transport all students when classes resume on Aug. 21.

The district has been struggling with a nationwide bus driver shortage since the pandemic, causing hardship for students and families. CPS is prioritizing students who are legally required to receive transportation, including those with special needs and kids in temporary living situations.

About 7,000 of these students have already signed up and all will have service by the first day of class, CPS said. Students who have not yet been routed will receive $25 per school day. They can also opt to receive a monthly transportation stipend of up to $500. Families of more than 3,000 students have already taken the stipend.

Students in magnet or selective programs will not get bus service. Instead, those students and one parent or guardian can get free CTA cards. In an email to parents, the school district said “If CPS is successful in expanding transportation capacity, we may be able to add some of these students to routes.”

At this time last year, CPS said it was able to provide routes for all 15,000 students whose families had already requested it.

After more than two years of transportation struggles, CPS last year approved a new policy that formally prioritized transportation for students with disabilities and homeless students before other students. Next on the priority list are low-income students in elementary magnet and selective enrollment programs.

Officials said any new applications for bus service will be processed on a rolling basis and it also will work to reduce travel times, which has also been a problem the last few years. To date, CPS says it has “slightly over half” the approximately 1,300 bus drivers it needs.

In a statement, CPS CEO Pedro Martiniez said the district is working “around the clock to find solutions.”

CPS contracts with 13 school bus companies, and has added alternative modes of transportation like taxis and vans over the past two years to help deal with the bus driver shortage.

CPS says in the past year, busing companies have increased wages for drivers to $20 to $25 an hour and many have also increased recruitment fairs and added referral bonuses.

More than 17,000 of the district’s 322,000 students are eligible for a bus ride. Last year, CPS bused about 17,300 students, including 8,700 students with special needs.

Nereida Moreno covers education for WBEZ. Follow @nereidamorenos and @WBEZeducation.

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