Most days, the yellow bus that’s supposed to take Denise Madre’s kids from their Germantown home to school in Roxborough doesn’t show up at all. A bus did come on one of the six days school has been open so far — nearly four hours late.
That happened after Madre, who doesn’t drive, paid for an Uber to get Jonan and Braylee to Shawmont Elementary, and also after the time the children — both of whom have autism — were left waiting at school for hours because no bus ever came to take them home.
Philadelphia School District officials warned the community about worsening school bus driver shortages this summer, and shifted start times over community and school objections to streamline operations. The district is even offering families $1,500 annually to drive their children to school instead of putting them on a yellow bus.
But the transportation reality has been much worse than anyone had braced for, affecting schools across the city, leaving some students stranded and others on buses for hours or dropped off in the wrong neighborhoods. After a year-plus of pandemic-disrupted learning, persistent bus woes have kept some students out of school completely and left parents and school staff scrambling yet again.
“This is not what we signed up for, and we’re not getting any answers,” said Madre, who’s now getting her kids to school with rides from her husband or mother. “When you inform people of what’s going on, they can react appropriately. They should have said, ‘It’s entirely possible that we will run out of drivers and your child won’t have a bus route.’”
Danielle Floyd, general manager of transportation, said the district, which is responsible for transporting children from 550 schools all around the five-county region, needs 1,300 drivers to run all routes well. Between vendors and its own drivers, it was promised 900 drivers this summer, but fewer have showed up. Floyd is dealing with 7,500 untouched bus route change requests and is adding back-office staff and working almost round the clock to try to catch up.
“I’m not satisfied certainly in terms of where we stand at the moment; it’s very important for us to be very up-front and honest about that,” Floyd said. “Our on-time performance, general overall service is directly linked to our ability to hire more bus drivers.”
The bus challenges affect schools across the public school system but also challenge charter and private schools, too, whose students the district also is charged with transporting.
“It’s a crisis,” said Kristi Littell, CEO of Wissahickon Charter School, whose two campuses draw students from 34 zip codes across the city, most of whom should receive bus rides to school. “This is supposed to be a right. It’s had a massive impact on families.”
The school has yet to have all its 13 buses show up. Some routes have been postponed indefinitely because of a lack of drivers; one bus company told Tiffany Days-Harris, Wissahickon’s director of school operations, it had 100 drivers for 1,000 routes.
It’s more than a logistical challenge for some families.
Shipphora Murray’s daughter, a second grader at Wissahickon, was let off her school bus at the wrong stop, with no adult waiting for her.
“We couldn’t find her; I called the police,” said Murray. “I was crying. I didn’t know if I would even see her again.”
Murray, who lives in North Philadelphia, waited for three heart-stopping hours until her husband found the girl, 7, alone and terrified on their front porch. Adrianna somehow managed to walk home from the unfamiliar stop while her family frantically searched for her.
Murray has not been able to get answers about how Adrianna was let off at the wrong stop or without an adult to receive her. She was told that the driver was disciplined but doesn’t know if he was fired. (Wissahickon officials said a second child, also a second grader, was left at the wrong stop Thursday, exactly a week after Murray’s daughter was let off erroneously; that child eventually turned up unharmed at a police station.)
Adrianna’s bus still doesn’t show up in the morning; Murray has spent $100 on an Uber some days to get her daughter to school.
“My daughter’s education is top priority,” said Murray, who doesn’t have a car and because of COVID-19 isn’t comfortable with riding the two SEPTA buses it would take to get to school. “But this situation really bothers me. … Her safety is their responsibility.”
Meredith Foote, principal of Overbrook Educational Center, the district’s school for blind and visually impaired children, worries about what the transportation problems are doing to her kids. Drivers doubling and tripling up on routes means inconsistent staff for kids, some of whom have significant special needs and may not be able to tell their families what happens on buses or communicate needs to drivers.
Every OEC bus is late, every day, said Foote. Kids miss school breakfast and some have arrived as late as lunchtime, disrupting school rhythms. Some OEC children are on buses for four hours every day; others are now being diapered because they can’t go hours without bathroom access. One family has had to choose between chemotherapy treatment for one child and getting the other to OEC.
“These are our most vulnerable students,” said Foote. “A child on a bus for sometimes more than four hours a day is unacceptable.”
Tiffany Nicholson’s daughter, a seventh grader who’s legally blind, rarely has a bus show up to take her to school in the morning, so Nicholson’s dad drives in from the suburbs to drive Trinity to OEC.
One day last week, Trinity’s ride home didn’t show up, so the bus company put a handful of OEC students on another route. The driver didn’t know where Trinity’s stop was, and when the child couldn’t see to tell him, Nicholson finally tracked her daughter down via phone GPS and picked her up in Northeast Philadelphia, miles from home in West Philadelphia, at 6:30 — four hours after school let out.
“It’s not fair to myself or any of these other parents, all around the city,” said Nicholson. “I had to leave work and call out for my second job just to make sure that I was able to get my child home safely.”
The bus situation “has just been horrendous,” said another district elementary principal, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal. Fewer than half of her school’s bus routes have been run consistently so far.
Another elementary principal, who also requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, is fielding a flurry of frustrated parent calls and emails and is fed up with the lack of answers from the district.
“We get nasty emails, parents are cursing teachers out, we get threats. Yesterday, I put my last two students on the bus at 5:20,” said the elementary principal, whose school lets out at 2:39.
It galls the elementary principal that after having most children completely out of the building for 18 months, so much of her day is eaten up by troubleshooting transportation.
Keena Hicks’ son Makye is a seventh grader at Cassidy Elementary in West Philadelphia, across the street from their house. But the entire student body is being bused to Lamberton Elementary while the district constructs a new Cassidy building.
Makye hasn’t been on a bus once since school started. Hicks spent $50 on Ubers to get him to school last week; this week, she showed him how to take two SEPTA buses to school and shelled out $50 more on a Key Card. The young man walks home with a group of his friends, which makes his mom nervous.
Hicks has missed work and spent hours on the phone with district transportation officials to try to untangle the mess and demand answers.
“Everyone was so nonchalant about the situation, ‘Oh, they don’t have a bus,’” said Hicks. “But we pay taxes, and our kids need to get to school.”
Floyd, the transportation general manager, said the district is working on offering bonuses and paying for trainers for its own drivers, which represent about 20% of its driver workforce; vendors are also generally offering perks and upping salaries. But in this employee market, it’s been especially difficult to find workers who can get their CDL licenses, pass physicals and drug tests, and make it through safety training.
She’s trying to prioritize the most challenged children. And she’s trying to come up with creative solutions, like giving SEPTA fare cards to younger children who can ride public transportation to school with older relatives.
“I want us to be in a better position within the next six to eight weeks — I’m more concerned about the winter months,” Floyd said. But she can’t guarantee that will happen.
John Swoyer, CEO of the MaST Network, whose Northeast Philadelphia charter schools have also been beset by bus problems, said the school is mulling solutions to the transportation problem: Could we help recruit drivers?
“Parents have floated the idea of buying buses,” said Swoyer. (It’s not feasible, he says.)
When schools abruptly went virtual at the beginning of the pandemic, it took a citywide response to get free internet and computers into families’ hands. That kind of response is needed to address the transportation puzzle, Swoyer said.
“We have to figure out a way to get everyone to the table,” Swoyer said. “This is a super big problem everywhere.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.