Testimony from Parents to Improve School Transportation
To NYC Council Education Committee Oversight Hearing
November 18, 2021
Special Education in the Covid era -- as always -- is dependent on safe, reliable school transportation unless there is a remote option or order. Parents to Improve School Transportation NYC has been following the situation of school busing for eleven years. From March 2020 to present we have co-hosted several meetings for parent advocates, often joined by school bus union representatives, to compare notes on what we could expect and demand from authorities to combat this dangerous pandemic.
There are a few things we would like to put on record so that everyone can learn from the missteps of the past.
Lack of proactive communication on protocols
NYSED, NYCDOE and the CDC published standards for transporting students on closed metal buses with social distancing and reduced capacity. When hybrid learning was announced, DOE stated in writing that the visual signage for students to understand where they could or could not sit would be shared with families and schools in advance of the return to open buildings. This did not happen. When PIST wrote to the Office of Pupil Transportation requesting details, they said on 09/21/2020:
We told vendors to put signs that say "don't sit here" - whether some of them chose to interpret that in a creative way, I could not say.
Family-facing language was posted on the website on Saturday.
We were only able to learn how to prepare our children by the grace of various school bus workers who sent photos over social media of the seat markings, signage and training documents, which I will attempt to affix below. One driver reported using smiley face stickers to indicate where to sit, but most were negative instructions which are not the most developmentally appropriate for children. An educator shared with us ideas for non-verbal and pre-literate children, but OPT did not invest time into consulting such experts.
There was also great confusion about the issue of students who are unable to tolerate a face mask. DOE promised alternatives but usually these students were in the bus with those who do wear a mask, seated at a further distance, according to drivers we consulted. In the current shortage of drivers we suspect that almost no child is being offered a more private ride in a smaller yellow vehicle.
Then, now, and previously, students from multiple schools are intentionally routed on the same bus together, complicating the DOE test and trace.
Inconsistent training and cleaning.
OPT told the public that CDC guidance had been sent to the vendors.
As you know there are dozens of different companies; each handled this in slightly different ways. In one case the driver reported being crowded into a room where a manager read to them from a one page checklist, and that was the training.
Through conversations with ATU 1181, we learned that some companies had the driver pick up the attendant at home -- to avoid mass transit exposure; some had people calling in instead of punching in -- to avoid congestion around the punch clock inside; but many companies did neither of these.
The union’s negotiation points around bus and bus yard safety had to be addressed company by company. These can be downloaded at https://atu1181.org/news/atu-local-1181-1061-proposals-for-impact-bargaining-6-22-20/
A new driver told of being required to spray the bus with strong smelling disinfectant shortly before each route, instead of this happening the night before as OPT had announced, and families on buses from this company reported that the riders were uncomfortable breathing in that atmosphere.
In summary, there was a lack of uniformity in proper training and safety precautions, other than the PPE that Central distributed to bus yards.
Attrition in the workforce.
Against the outcry of school bus advocates and unions, there was a mass layoff of some 15,000 drivers, attendants and mechanics once it was clear that the 2019-20 school year would continue and end on a remote-only basis. This led to many individuals seeking other forms of work.
We did not experience the impact of this so much when there was hybrid school in 2020-21, with pods alternating days and many riders staying home altogether. Again by the grace of the workers foregoing their right to a seniority pick, routes from March 2020 were extended to the same groups of riders. OPT refused to send out route letters or any other communication, relying only on NYCSA online which most families do not engage with, but fortunately there were calls between school bus crews and the families to share accurate route information. Please note that OPT did not staff the phone line on the days leading up to school; they told parent advocates that people could call 311 but calls to that number resulted in a message to call the school.
Upon the return to being fully in-person in 2021-22, however, our City was short by hundreds of school bus drivers. The lack of enough routes with a consistently assigned driver to just that one route reflects the sense that these essential workers were cast aside callously, on top of the previous downgrading of their livelihood through bids without EPP, and has caused lateness, missed classes/therapies, and mental stress for riders, school staff, families and still-active school bus workers alike.
By contrast, in informal interviews with the president and vice president of the Boston, Mass. school bus drivers union, PIST has learned that it was possible to retain a healthy majority of drivers through measures that respected their jobs and conditions, such as: full pay and benefits during the period of lockdown; using school buses to deliver lunches to students; and at this time there is an arrangement for mobile Covid- 19 vaccine and testing sites at the bus bases three days a week.
Concerning trends at OPT
As you know there is now no social distancing required on school buses and due to the driver shortage, routes are running at or above the usual capacity. Yesterday we spoke with a parent whose child’s bus took an unannounced detour to a different borough, and had students side by side on double seats; the child was home two hours after school dismissal, and too late for a therapy session.
After this parent complained to OPT brass, the call back included an admonition that “every child will be in a standard bus soon (projecting up to 40 riders per general ed route; 14 riders per special ed route); we are tired of dealing with the mini-wagon accommodation, we’re phasing out those vehicles and replacing the ‘Limited Time Travel.’ accommodation with ‘fewer students on route’.”
Putting aside the fact that OPT did not bother to state this publicly at the D75 event, if true, this scenario violates disability rights laws. It diminishes the likelihood of getting to school in under two hours and cutting risk of exposure to virus particles. Parents of children with medical reasons - and legal contracts with the state - to keep the ride short will be up in arms before you know it.
Our typical inbox this week includes a mother in a family residence who has had to fight twice this school year to get a bus stop at the shelter, and then to keep OPT from deleting it. We have reports of missing bus stops on general education routes for other groups of students in temporary housing, and families who trusted that ‘school choice’ or ‘gifted and talented’ meant they deserved a bus stop less than two to five miles from home.
In previous years, the complaints settled down to a trickle by November.
Thousands of parents and school staff have submitted phone or email complaints this fall to OPT, the Office of the Public Advocate, your Committee Chair Mr. Treyger, and organizations such as ours. 350 registered to learn of bus rights at a virtual forum on November 5 which OPT did not attend. Just days ago, 180 attended a CEC 75 meeting with OPT that was called on three school days' notice, and dozens described their bus route misery. We are beyond tired of high paid bureaucrats deflecting and downplaying this crisis. Independent hands-on oversight of this agency, and of the vendors they cater to, is needed to convince parents that our children’s interests are anywhere near first.
When there are not enough resources to get students with IEPs to regular school, our communities have deep doubts about the promise of extracurricular recovery offerings. The City’s failure to maintain full staffing of school buses - while denying a remote option - is causing our youth with IEPs to miss even more time they need to recover, even while their peers receive lessons for a full day every day.
The Citywide Council on Special Education has passed a resolution with Transportation Demands that are reasonable and attuned to the needs of all who travel to school. We would like your Committee to consider this for legislation. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1I4ylfthGlHLgb4_zwwsH4Odyhnf-CNJDqaaXs7pL05o/edit?usp=sharing
The non-profit acquisition of Reliant Bus with City funding contains a basis for providing school busing with more input from workers, parents and educators once the element of owner self-enrichment is removed. If the City ultimately goes on to acquire all the bus yards, there would be a basis for uniform regulations including Covid Mandates and training; for more direct exchange with Special Education agencies/experts; and for employee retention, since City benefits for school bus drivers, attendants and mechanics could sustain them to continue developing and applying their skills to this hard but crucial work.
In the meanwhile, parents in our organization favor programs to recruit and retain school bus workers and bus paraprofessionals with attractive compensation, including restoring the Employee Protection Provisions to school bus vendor contracts as insurance against attrition.
Lastly, for students who are expected to be able to use mass transit for their school commute, we urge the DOE resume offering the related service of Travel Training. Most importantly for public health, we urge a survey of principals and/or MTA bus drivers to determine which routes near schools must be reinforced with more frequent buses in the morning and at dismissal time, in order to avoid unsafe crowding. We ask that this Committee work with Transportation and the Citywide Council on High Schools to address these hot spots with the MTA with all deliberate speed.