Chicago Public Schools was forced to inform the families of 2,100 students this weekend that there is no bus to take their child to school and, in an extraordinary move that shows how dire the situation is, offered parents $1,000 up front and $500 a month after that to get their child to school by themselves.
This was after bus companies informed the school district Friday that about 10% of bus drivers quit last week, with 70 drivers tendering their resignation Friday alone. CPS officials say some of the drivers were unwilling to get vaccinated against COVID-19, which the district is mandating.
“We are saddened and extremely frustrated by this situation,” said CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton in a statement. “We express our sincerest apologies to the impacted families for the inconvenience this has caused — especially with such short notice.”
The crunch has left families scrambling to figure out how to get their children to school on the first day — and beyond.
Even before Friday, the district was grappling with a shortage of bus drivers that is being felt nationwide. CPS says it has about 770 bus drivers and needs 500 more.
The 2,100 families affected include children with special needs as well as some elementary students in magnet or gifted programs.
Parent Jessica Lopez, who has two boys with autism, said Sunday she thought it was a cruel joke when she got a call from CPS on Saturday saying all bus routes to Chopin Elementary had been cancelled.
Lopez said the caller “just apologized and said that they just don’t have buses. There was no plan, no date for when this could be figured out.”
She said the caller suggested carpooling with other parents or using CTA, but Lopez’s older son is nonverbal and requires a one-on-one aide with him at all times.
“I honestly did not sleep last night because I’ve spent so many weeks recently preparing both of my boys to go back to school … And to literally the day before not know how you’re going to make that happen now? Like, how are we going to do this?’” said Lopez.
She said being on a crowded CTA bus is hard for her older son, and she doesn’t drive.
Lopez said the CPS caller mentioned the district would pay families to take their children to school, but had no details.
“It was just kind of like, ‘We’re gonna give you money. We don’t know when we’re gonna give it to you, and we don’t know how, but also make sure to have your kid there on Monday morning,’” Lopez said.
“That was stressed more than anything. We’ve gotten multiple emails, phone calls, voicemails, text messages, letting us know that every minute counts, every day counts, our kids need to be in the school from 8:45 to 3:45.”
Lopez has arranged for a nephew to pick her and her boys up Monday morning. They’re worried the boys’ father will have to miss work to get them to school going forward.
Parent Angel Alvarez said he will not be able to get his daughter to school at all on the first day. She’s starting third grade at Decatur Classical, a new school for her this year.
“For me, the transportation problems were completely foreseeable and should have had better planning,” said Alvarez.
He said the busing snafus also highlight the need for better remote options. CPS is allowing only limited numbers of medically fragile students to continue with virtual education. Alvarez requested remote learning for his daughter because he can’t get her to school without a bus; he said he hasn’t received a response.
A busing scramble for first week of school
CPS officials say prior to this weekend they had already been forced to tell parents of about 5,500 children that their bus routes had to be altered, with pickup times significantly moved up or back. These parents were also given the option of receiving a stipend to get their children to school.
About 14,500 students are provided bus service in CPS out of 341,000 students total. Many special education students have a legal right to receive free bus service to schools that can meet their needs. In addition, the district offers bus service to some elementary students in magnet or gifted programs.
Of the 2,100 students that were told this weekend that buses were unavailable, CPS says 990 were special education students. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires the district to provide transportation to these students.
District officials say they are prioritizing bus routes of special education students. In an email statement, the district said parents will be provided the stipend in the interim and students will get provided bus transportation “in the near future.”
“The district is working over the weekend to provide additional routes to as many as possible,” the statement said.
The district hires several companies to handle its bus routes. It plans to spend about $117 million on student transportation a year for a fleet of about 1,250 buses, according to its last contract with bus companies.
Even parents who didn’t get a call from CPS have been on edge this weekend, especially parents of special education students.
Rosslyn Walker said she got a postcard in the mail last week saying a bus company would call to confirm her son’s bus route the day before school. No one has called.
“At this point, we’ve just decided that if no bus shows up [Monday] morning by 6:45 or 7, then we’re just gonna head out the door,” she said.
Walker said she supports the district’s vaccine mandate for bus drivers, even if it’s exacerbating the driver shortage.
“As a parent, I want to say that if you’re a bus driver and you don’t want to be vaccinated, goodbye and good riddance. I don’t want you driving my child if you don’t want to be vaccinated.”
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.