On Friday morning, Alma Julieta Mendoza and her 16-year-old son Nathanael rushed to the bus stop in the rain through dark Chicago alleys and still empty streets before sunrise. They walk six blocks every morning from their West Side apartment to the nearest CTA bus stop, where they catch a bus for an hour-long commute to Roosevelt High School in Albany Park on the Northwest Side.
Nathanael, who has Down syndrome and is a junior at Roosevelt, is supposed to get a bus ride from Chicago Public Schools. But that hasn’t happened yet this year. He is one of 3,800 Chicago Public School students — 2,300 of them with special needs — who were told days before school began on Aug. 30 that no school bus would be coming to pick them up.
This week, they learned their ride isn’t coming anytime soon. CPS, faced with a national shortage of drivers, said it’s making progress but it won’t have bus service for all the students with special needs until school resumes after winter break.
Nathanael and his mom have been trying to get used to their daily routine, but the cold rainy mornings remind them of the freezing Chicago winter that soon will be part of their school commute.
Taking her son to school on public transportation has been difficult for Mendoza, who had to quit her job to accompany Nathanael to and from school every day. Nathanael has tried to convince his mom that he can get to school on his own, but that’s not an option for Mendoza.
“I don’t feel entirely convinced to say, ‘Okay go by yourself,’ mostly due to the area where we live,” said Mendoza in Spanish, adding that she hears gunshots almost every day.
CPS officials have blamed the busing problems on a national shortage of bus drivers, including some who initially resigned over a COVID-19 vaccination mandate announced by school officials last summer.
CPS says 97% of the 3,800 students without bus service have found a way to get to school while CPS works out a permanent solution. But more than 100 students never made it to school this year, most of them in special education. CPS says 51 are still actively enrolled, with the rest having transferred out, withdrawn or the district lost touch with them. The 51 students still actively enrolled were all supposed to be placed on bus routes by Friday Oct. 29, CPS said.
For the rest — the ones like Nathanael who have been getting to school on their own — the district offered families money to help defray transportation costs. It’s using alternative transportation, like taxi cabs, for some students and helping vendors with incentives to recruit and keep drivers. CPS also said this week it added additional companies that will begin transporting students next week.
“Our goal right now would be that all of our diverse learners could be served by the time we come back from Christmas break,” said new CPS CEO Pedro Martinez during a board of education meeting on Wednesday.
This situation has outraged parents and advocates. Last month, some filed a formal complaint with the Illinois State Board of Education arguing that CPS is not providing appropriate access to education for students with disabilities. They also argue CPS should connect students with remote learning options if it can’t coordinate bus service.
Advocates also want CPS to prioritize students with disabilities for bus routing.
In a statement, the spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education said the agency is investigating. She said if the state finds that CPS violated its obligation to provide a “free and appropriate public education” to students with disabilities, it will issue “corrective action, which could include providing compensatory services to affected students.”
Mendoza, who is a single parent and is now unemployed, worries about paying the rent and other bills. CPS offered parents $1,000 up front and then $500 a month to get their child to school. But Mendoza and other parents said the first check took more than a month to arrive and she doesn’t know if she can count on the money.
Mendoza used the money from CPS to pay for rent and other expenses that her pay check from her restaurant job used to cover. She said she quit because her restaurant hours conflicted with her son’s drop-off and pick-up times. Mendoza thought about sending her son to school using Uber or Lyft, but people under 18 can’t ride alone without an adult. Each ride costs about $25 — which is far too much for Mendoza.
She and other parents say CPS should have planned for additional challenges during the pandemic. She said there were bus issues in April when high school students returned for in-person learning for the first time last year.
Jason Dierbeck and Betty Gonzalez are in a similar predicament. Their 6-year-old son Jason, who is in kindergarten at Lara Academy on the South Side, has autism and doesn’t communicate well verbally. Their son was finally assigned a bus route for the first time last week.
The transportation issues have caused great stress on Gonzalez, who has stage four cancer and needs to go to doctor’s appointments that can take all day. Dierbeck worried when Gonzalez had to walk Jason for at least eight blocks to school.
“The weather’s getting worse and she needed to rest,” he said. But now they are having another problem — a bus aide threatened to stop the service because Jason, who has extreme sensory issues, refused to wear a mask on the bus.
“We deserve to have our son bused to school in the morning, that is part of his requirements,” said Dierbeck, adding that refusing a mask is part of his son’s disability. “Whatever shortages [CPS officials] have — that’s up to them to figure out.”