New York City is finally rolling out a long-awaited school bus GPS app citywide – four and a half years after officials first announced the plan.
The NYC School Bus App, developed in partnership with the rideshare company Via, allows caregivers of the roughly 150,000 students who ride a school bus every day to track their kids’ vehicles in real time. The sprawling school bus system, which serves tens of thousands of students with disabilities, often subjects students to hours-long rides, delays, and no-show buses. In the past, parents often had to repeatedly call bus companies to track down missing buses.
Education Department officials first announced the five-year, $36 million contract with Via in summer 2019. They said at the time the app would roll out citywide in the 2020-21 school year. Those plans were scuttled by the COVID pandemic, but even after the full return of in-person learning in fall 2021, it took two-and-a-half more years to get the app up and running citywide.
Mayor Eric Adams and schools Chancellor David Banks struck a celebratory note in a press release announcing the citywide rollout.
“I’m thrilled to be launching this system for families across the city and to provide peace of mind to parents as they send their babies off to school each day,” Banks said.
Lori Podvesker, a parent and director of disability and education policy at IncludeNYC, said launching the bus-tracking app was long overdue.
She often relies on text messages with a bus attendant to get a heads-up on when her son, Jack, will be picked up and dropped off each day from his District 75 program, which serves students with more significant disabilities.
“Knowing that I can access this information helps build trust,” Podvesker said.
She recalled an incident several years ago when Jack’s bus didn’t turn up and she frantically called the bus company, which didn’t answer the phone. When Podvesker called the Education Department’s transportation office, she was placed on hold.
“It is so nerve-wracking — especially as a parent of a kid with intellectual disabilities who’s nonverbal. You just freak out,” she said.
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One Staten Island parent in 2021 resorted to slapping an Airtag on her elementary school daughter in lieu of working GPS on the school bus.
Podvesker welcomes the new app, but she wasn’t sure if it’s working yet for her son’s bus route, which ferries him from Downtown Brooklyn to the Lower East Side. When she logged into the app on Friday, a page came up that said, “No activity so far. We hope to see you soon!”
Still, she noted her son was already off the bus when she checked.
Indeed, officials’ claims of a full citywide rollout come with several big caveats.
First, the app only works if drivers sign up for the program – and currently about 25% of the city’s bus drivers aren’t signed up, according to officials. In the press release, officials advised caregivers whose kids’ drivers aren’t subscribed to contact the bus company and ask them to help.
An Education Department spokesperson said drivers are required to sign up and can be fined if they don’t. Use of the app was a part of the protracted contract negotiations with the city’s largest school bus drivers union that threatened to throw the school bus system into chaos last fall, the spokesperson added. While negotiations were underway, union drivers were instructed not to use the app, delaying the rollout, the spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, the city’s largest school bus drivers union, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Another obstacle for many families is that the app requires a New York City Schools Account, or NYCSA. Roughly a third of the city’s public school families weren’t linked to an account as of summer 2023. And for the tens of thousands of charter and private school students who also ride city school buses, signing up for a NYCSA is difficult or impossible, parents and advocates said.
A 2022 Education Department manual said private school students are “ineligible” for the accounts, and that charter school students can get one but have to go through a more onerous process.
Manhattan parent Naomi Peña said she lost access to her NYCSA when her son transferred to a private school because the Education Department couldn’t accommodate his learning disability. Her son still relies on city school buses, but she can’t access the new app.
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“It’s incredibly frustrating,” she said. “When busing routes get switched … we are left scrambling waiting for the new bus driver or matron to call us.”
An Education Department spokesperson said the agency is working with individual charter and private schools to give families access to NYCSA logins.
The bus tracking app is also supposed to have a feature that allows school administrators to track the buses of their students.
The school bus tracking app is the Education Department’s second recent high-profile foray into developing software to support families. The agency recently released its own grades, attendance and messaging app, following a catastrophic hack of Skedula, a widely used online gradebook run by an outside vendor.
To allay concerns about privacy, officials said they will “share the minimum required data, will require highly secure logins for all users, and will perform data encryption and continuous security testing on the system.”
The Via app also isn’t the city’s first attempt to equip school buses with GPS. A City Council bill from 2019 required the Education Department to install location tracking technology in all city school buses by that September – a deadline council members said they didn’t meet.
And, of course, even if the new app works seamlessly and makes it into the hands of every parent, it won’t address the many other problems plaguing the sprawling school bus system, including frequent delays and no-shows, buses without air conditioning, and an ongoing shortage of drivers and bus attendants.
“It wouldn’t necessarily make the routes shorter,” said Sara Catalinotto a long-time transportation advocate and head of the group Parents to Improve School Transportation. “But at least people wouldn’t come out into the cold to wait.”
Alex Zimmerman contributed.
Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at email@example.com.