‘It could be a few days’: Newark parents struggle to get bus service for students with disabilities

A yellow school bus is reflected in a rearview mirror as they drive down the road.
A school bus is parked outside Central High School in June 2019. The public school serves students in grades 9-12 (David Handschuh for Chalkbeat)

For Veronica Searles, the start of the school year has been more expensive than usual. 

Her son, Deion Searles, is an eighth grader at Camden Street Elementary School who has ADHD and anxiety and receives services from the district’s office of special education. The South Ward family is on a strict income, but after Deion’s district-provided bus never came on the first two days of school, Searles was forced to spend $80 on Lyfts to get her son to and from campus.

“Probably by the end of the week I’m going to be tapped out. I’m not going to have any money to take him to school,” Searles said. “I told them if he doesn’t show up, that’s not my fault. You should have had everything lined up.”

Searles fears her budget might not handle the unforeseen expenses for much longer. This isn’t the first time Searles has had to deal with bus issues at the beginning of the school year. 

“Come to think of it, isn’t it every year that we have to wait a week or two before he gets onto a bus anyway?” Searles asked. 

The Searles family isn’t the only one facing these problems. 

On the third day of school, dozens of Newark parents of students with disabilities had yet to receive a bus assignment for their children. On Thursday morning, the district’s board of education office was filled with parents waiting to get answers on bus assignments, school schedules, and enrollment among other issues. Currently, parents are not allowed inside the district’s board of education offices. 

Some parents took their concerns to the Newark Board of Education office on the third day of school. Parents are not allowed inside the building and wait in the lobby until their questions are answered. (Jessie Gomez / Chalkbeat)

The district and Quanika Dukes-Spruill, executive director of the district’s transportation services, did not respond to comment. 

A national bus driver shortage, exacerbated partly by the pandemic, has affected hundreds of thousands of students across the country as they returned to school this year. Schools have also struggled to fill a number of lower-paid positions during the pandemic and principals don’t expect that to change in the new school year, according to a federal survey of nearly 860 school leaders released last week.

In August, Newark Superintendent Roger León and the board of education spent just over $7 million on a contract with 20 transportation companies to service 126 routes to schools. The contract is for a two-year period starting on Sept. 1 with the option to renew for two additional one-year periods. The new agreement was a response to the COVID-19 National Declaration of Emergency and bids were received on Aug. 9, according to the district’s resolution

Students with disabilities must also be provided with transportation under their IEPs or individualized education program, according to the office of special education. According to the office, parents should allow 72 hours for the student’s request to be fully processed and assigned to the student by the office of pupil transportation. 

Additionally, under New Jersey law, the district is required to provide transportation to and from school for elementary school students who live more than two miles from their public school or high school students who live more than two and a half miles from their school.

Digna Lazo, one of the parents waiting in the lobby of the district’s board of education office on Thursday, said she’s been going to the district’s offices since Tuesday. Her son was waiting for the bus on the first day of school but it never came. 

Lazo, a Spanish speaker whose son has ADHD and attends Franklin Elementary School, said she is finding it difficult to communicate with district officials and relay her concerns. In previous years, Lazo said there were district interpreters who would help her communicate.  

“Every time I call the district or come here they say they’re going to get back to me,” said Lazo in Spanish. “It’s the same thing every year and everything is in English.” 

Fifth graders board a bus after dismissal at Wesley Elementary School in Middletown, CT on October 5, 2020. (Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

Jasmin Lee Phillips, the mother of 14-year-old Elijah Lee who has autism, did not get a bus assignment for her son on the first day of school. On Wednesday, the school’s principal called her and said her son was assigned to Phoenix Transportation services and should wait until 8 a.m. for the bus to take him to Central High School. 

Lee waited for the bus on Thursday morning but by 8:15 a.m. the bus never arrived, prompting Elijah to be late for school. 

“I’ve been calling. I called today, and still no answer,” Lee Phillips said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Despite the unexpected transportation expense, Searles said she’s happy her son has been having a good experience at school. She doesn’t want to keep him at home and hopes someone in the district can help her get her son transportation or financial assistance to keep taking Deion to school.

“She said they put in the paperwork yesterday but nobody knows how long it’s going to be,” said Searles about her conversations with district staff. “She said it could be tomorrow. Then I went down to the board of education and the board of education said it could be a few days.”

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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