Amid a continued bus driver shortage, magnet and selective enrollment students in Chicago Public Schools will no longer be guaranteed bus service to class, even if they live relatively far from school.
The Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday approved a new policy that formally prioritizes 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.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said the school district is able to provide routes for all 15,000 students whose families have already requested it. However, he noted that new requests from special education students during the school year could push magnet and selective enrollment students off buses.
He noted that assessments of preschool students are currently taking place and some could qualify for transportation. In December 2021, CPS said it provided transportation for roughly 10,000 students with special needs and 10,000 general education students.
“We are working around the clock,” said Martinez, adding that the school district is increasing its number of transportation vendors and trying to boost the hourly rate for bus drivers. “It is a very complicated process.”
Martinez said any elementary students displaced from buses can get free CTA cards.
Last school year, the school district struggled to provide transportation. Just days before the school year started, hundreds of parents received word there’d be no bus for their children. The school district said they got word from bus companies that many drivers quit at the last minute, some of them because they weren’t vaccinated.
Some families were offered a stipend to take their own children to school. But some children were unable to get to school for months. At the beginning of December, the school district was still struggling to secure transportation for 1,500 special education students.
One teacher who spoke at the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday said there was one student who she did not meet until December last year. She said others waited for hours for their bus to show up after school, leaving them at the mercy of staff who weren’t getting paid.
Advocates also filed a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Education and the school district was put under corrective action.
Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland pushed the school district to prioritize busing for special needs students. Disabled students who get transportation as part of their individualized education program usually go to schools far from their homes in order to get services. Therefore, not providing that busing violates their right to a free and appropriate public education, she emphasized.
Yet Martinez seemed wary about officially prioritizing students in special education. Many parents send their children to magnet and selective enrollment schools because of the promise of transportation.
Martinez last year noted the district can transport greater numbers of magnet and selective enrollment students because they get picked up at nearby schools, whereas special education students get door-to-door service.
Martinez said some families are being offered $500 monthly stipends to transport their children themselves. This is down from $1,000 offered last year. He said this is only being offered to families who took the stipends last year or to those students whose bus service would be particularly long.
But advocates are worried that families of special education students will be asked to take stipends and forgo their right to transportation. They say the stipends are not a solution.
In other news at Wednesday’s board of education meeting:
The board approved a $10.2 million agreement with the Chicago Police Department to station 59 officers in schools, three fewer than last year. Dunbar Career Academy High School voted to remove both its officers; Carver Military Academy High School and Dyett High School for the Arts voted to remove one of two officers. Most board members praised CPS’s effort to reduce police presence in schools over the past two years. But one board member pointed out that 40 of the 91 high schools that still have officers disproportionately serve Black students.
The board also approved an $85 million contract with Fisher Scientific for voluntary weekly COVID-19 testing, with more of the testing done at home this year. Martinez said the school district will be one of the few districts to continue a screening program this year. He said he didn’t want to disrupt the program, which took a long time to get going. Masks will be “strongly encouraged” this year but not required.