De Blasio says school buses will be in place by the start of school. Some students with disabilities have already started without them.

A yellow school bus waits on the street.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said school buses will run in time for the day of school on Sept. 21. (David Handschuh for Chalkbeat)

School buses will be rolling when New York City’s district schools reopen to students on Sept. 21, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised on Wednesday. His pledge came just days after education department officials told parents it was unclear whether transportation will be in place on time

About 100,000 school bus seats are expected to be available, covering students with disabilities who are legally entitled to bus service, and prioritizing students living in shelters before thousands of other students who use school buses. The buses will run at 25% of capacity to maintain social distancing, everyone on board will be required to wear masks, and the companies will receive “electrostatic sprayers” to help clean the buses overnight.

Typically, the school bus system carries closer to 160,000 students. Fewer slots are needed this fall since most students will attend school on staggered days, one to three days a week, and on top of that, 39% of students have so far opted for fully remote learning

“School bus service will be back and will be available to all children who need it,” de Blasio told reporters. “This will start from the first day of school.” 

He said families would receive information about their bus routes by the end of the week, though city law requires that information be provided at least 15 days before the start of the school year.

Some parents immediately pointed out that the mayor’s promise of busing by the first day of school does not apply to a slew of students with disabilities who have already started in-person classes. Those students attend private schools that are funded by the city and state. They are often placed in these schools directly by the district because the city’s schools cannot serve them. Many of these students are also legally entitled to the city’s free yellow school bus service.

“[The mayor] already failed by not providing busing on the first day of school for this particular group of students who are supposed to get busing from the district,” said Ivette Rivera-Giusti, whose 11-year-old son did not receive busing in time for the first day of classes on Tuesday at the Summit School in Queens. “Honestly, I’m not feeling very hopeful that there will be busing even next week.”

Rivera-Giusti said she has repeatedly called the city’s Office of Pupil Transportation but hasn’t been able to get through. The family has instead been driving their son to the school in Jamaica, which can take an hour or two, especially as they have to comply with socially distanced drop-off policies and often have trouble finding parking on their Forest Hills block. “We can’t right now afford $400 a month for a parking spot and it breaks our workday,” she said.

The city provides yellow bus transportation to about 18,000 students in non-public schools, though officials did not provide figures on how many have already started school without receiving their mandated bus services.

The department relies on a patchwork of private companies to provide yellow bus service and has been scrambling to reinstate school bus contracts after they were abruptly cancelled when school buildings shut down in March.

Officials said the rates paid for some 60 bus contracts would not change dramatically, though they did not provide a specific dollar figure. The annual cost of bus service is roughly $1.2 billion.

The city’s bus agreements require paying 43% of the contracted rate if school buildings shut down for more than five days, officials said, much less than the 85% rate the department paid in the immediate aftermath of school building closures.

Top education department officials had previously warned that buses might not run on time, and questions still loom as to whether the mayor can fulfill his promise. As contracts have only been finalized in the past several days, buses must still pass two separate inspections, and companies must quickly make sure they have enough drivers on hand after thousands were furloughed. New York City families have long had problems with spotty bus service, especially at the beginning of the school year, even without the added complexity of a pandemic.

To help mitigate a delay in bus service, officials previously said they have distributed MetroCards to schools, with the goal of providing enough so that parents can accompany their children on public transit. There will also be a “streamlined” process to submit reimbursement for other forms of transportation. Officials did not say to what extent they’re still leaning on those alternatives.

Advocates said they were glad to hear the mayor’s commitment to restarting the bus system, but are watching closely to see what will be.

“Parents will be relieved to hear the mayor’s promise that bus service will be in place for the start of the school year,” said Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children. “Given the difficulties families often experience with bus service at the start of each year, we know the DOE has a lot of work to do in the coming week to ensure bus service runs smoothly.”

Reema Amin contributed to this report.

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