Chicago school bus service still a daily gamble for some families

The facade of Chicago Public Schools headquarters, with the district’s sign hanging on the wall behind windows with green silhouettes of students.
In his first Board of Education meeting Wednesday, CEO Pedro Martinez pledged to have a solution by Friday in place for the students who’ve had to sit out school as a result of problems with bus service. (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks into the school year, nearly 4,000 Chicago Public Schools students are still without reliable transportation as bus driver shortages continue to plague the country’s third largest district.

In his first Board of Education meeting Wednesday, CEO Pedro Martinez pledged by Friday to have a solution in place for the students who’ve had to sit out school as a result — about 3% of those without steady bus service. 

“We are monitoring this on a weekly basis,” said Martinez, who recognized parents’ frustrations.

Since the start of the school year, parents have raised concerns about canceled bus routes, unreliable bus service, and last-minute cancelations. Currently, 3,800 students remain without reliable school transportation, according to data presented Wednesday to the school board.

Of those students, 107 have not returned to school since the start of the academic year. Those students will be routed by Friday and will have rides by next week, officials said. 

During the meeting, Kimberly Jones, executive director of Student Transportation Services, said the nationwide bus driver shortage continued to present challenges.  Even so, Jones said the district was “leaving no stone unturned” to find alternative options to provide transportation for students.

In addition to a stipend for families to transport their children on their own, the district last week rolled out rides by taxi cab companies, Jones said.

The district is using smaller transportation vehicles and partnering with vendors including Ride-A-Long, which will bring 80 additional drivers by the end of November. The district hopes to have 300 drivers, which will serve 3,600 students, by the end of the year, district officials said. 

Martinez said the rollout of the Ride-A-Long drivers would be a “game-changer” for the district’s transportation challenges. 

Chicago’s bus problems made headlines the first week of school, when about 2,100 students were left stranded. At the time, district officials promised $1,000 cash payments for transit assistance and a fast solution. But weeks later, several families told Chalkbeat, bus service is still a daily gamble. They cited late pick-ups and drop-offs, last-minute cancelations without notification, or no service at all.

The latest data presented to the Board of Education shows that even more families lack service since the start of the year.

Chicago Public Schools is responsible for transporting about 16,000 students to and from schools every year. 

Currently, students with disabilities make up more than half of the outstanding transportation requests, and families say the stakes are high. One parent previously told Chalkbeat their child had a route canceled and was subsequently denied remote instruction. Others said the problem isn’t new.

Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland raised concerns about how Chicago Public Schools prioritizes who receives bus service, since it transports some students to selective enrollment and magnet schools.  

Todd-Breland wondered when the district should pivot to make sure students with disabilities and students experiencing homelessness were being prioritized. 

In responding, Martinez said they were monitoring the situation week to week. “We have seen great progress.”

Board president Miguel del Valle said they also needed to consider safety concerns parents have with their children using public transportation.  

“Because of the CTA route, they do not want their kids on the CTA bus —for safety reasons,” del Valle said. “It’s something that we want to consider if we are forced to make decisions about the distribution of those resources.”

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