Chicago Public Schools students return to class in less than three weeks.
But for thousands of students, even getting to school will be a challenge.
The school district said it currently has only about half the bus drivers it needs to transport the more than 17,000 students who are eligible to be bused to school.
As of now, the district said it has confirmed transport for more than 7,000 priority students with either special needs or who may be experiencing homelessness.
“This was a tough decision that we needed to make, and this is not only a Chicago issue. It’s happening across school districts of America,” CPS Chief Operating Officer Charles Mayfield said in an interview with WTTW News.
“It was a tough decision to make where we decided we could only transport the most vulnerable students due to that bus driver shortage.”
Mayfield said school bus drivers are typically retirees and many of those people have not returned to driving since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even a hike in average pay from around $20 to $25 per hour has not been enough to attract the number of required drivers.
In the meantime, CPS is offering the parents of children who qualify to be bused but for whom service is not available a monthly stipend of up to $500 toward their transportation costs. Other students are being offered Ventra cards to enable them to use public transportation.
But for students who do qualify for and want bus service but whose transportation is not yet confirmed, Mayfield said it may be a few weeks before that comes through.
“As of Monday, if we did not have your transportation request, then you won’t be routed the first day, but we will provide you $25 a day until you’re routed,” Mayfield said. “And it typically takes up to two weeks to get routed after the first day of school.”
Below is a Q&A with Laurie Viets, a CPS parent with three children in Chicago Public Schools, two of whom qualify for bus service.
WTTW News: I understand you have three children in CPS, two of whom would normally need to be bused to school. Just tell me your situation and how you are going to handle the school bus shortage.
Laurie Viets: Did you see the email that came out yesterday from CPS? … So everybody’s panicking because the email is completely confusing. So parents have no idea what’s happening and like every parent’s Facebook page, be it special ed pages or local pages or mom pages, everybody’s freaking out because no one understands what’s happening.
I have three children with IEPs (individualized education programs), two of which qualify for busing. So we have been busing — my oldest is 14 — so we’ve been busing for however many years. Every year is a mess. So CPS is going to say that it is a bus driver shortage. Correct. There is a driver shortage, but CPS transportation has been a mess forever. This is not a new problem for CPS. Was it exasperated by the pandemic? Yes. Are there more kids who are eligible for IP transportation? I’m sure.
Why do you think this is a persistent and perennial problem?
Viets: Chicago Public Schools transportation doesn’t plan ahead. So about two weeks ago when I called them about (needing busing), when they called they were offering me the stipend and trying to convince me to take it after I already said, ‘No, I cannot take a stipend. I need transportation.’ I asked a question about bus routing, and they hadn’t even started trying to route kids yet. So a month out and Chicago has not tried to start planning routes. That’s ridiculous. There’s no way you can route this many kids to this many schools all over the city of Chicago and not start until three weeks out.
So last year we did not have a route, a bus driver, anything for about four or five weeks. So I had to scramble. But what they did eventually do is what we’ve been saying for years, is instead of hiring bus drivers, they hired a transportation service — a medical transportation service. So my child
had basically a taxi van that picked him up every day, took him to school and brought him home. That had to be more cost-effective than a school bus. It definitely was cheaper. It definitely made our lives easier because you can drive a van quicker and faster and easier than you can drive a bus. We had the best year of transportation we have ever had in our lives because there’s a lot more people who are able, willing and qualified to drive a van or a taxi than they are to drive a giant a-- school bus through the streets of Chicago.
So I think that if CPS took this as a priority they would find a way. Chicago Public Schools seems to think they’re just going to keep doing the same thing and screw everybody over because we can’t do any better. They can do better.
You mentioned they’d offered you a stipend. Would it be possible with the stipend that they offered you to hire the service that provided a good service for you last year?
Viets: We couldn’t afford it. If you have a special needs child who can’t take public transportation or you don’t have a car, $500 is getting you nowhere.
$500 a month is not going to pay to transport a child at the rate that gas and things are. $500 barely covers the time and the gas money that it takes. And a lot of parents I know have children who are needing aid, they need assistance. You can’t just put your autistic child alone in a cab. And that’s expensive, too.
So, the first week of school we’re already scrambling with other friends figuring out, OK, how do I get the boys to their two separate schools on time? I’m in a privileged situation where my husband and I, we should be able to do it. I have friends where I could drive my kids to a friend’s house and the friend could drive them. It will be chaos. There are going to be a lot of children who are going to miss school completely because there are not drivers and the families do not have another way to transport their kids.