WASHINGTON (DC News Now) — Thousands of kids across the District will return to school on Monday.
A day that is supposed to be an exciting day for students will be anything but for many parents who have children with disabilities.
“I am feeling already burnt out. I’m feeling anxious, I’m feeling scared but I’m also feeling really just angry and frustrated,” said parent Elizabeth Mitchell.
Mitchell’s son is a third grader at Kennedy Krieger School in Baltimore. He relies on the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) for transportation to and from school, which the agency is legally required to provide. But, after about eight months of delayed or canceled bus service, she doesn’t have much faith in the agency.
“I have zero faith that Monday is going to be successful, as far as transportation goes,” said Mitchell.
OSSE is responsible for transporting students with disabilities to school.
Last year, however, a change to its system coupled with bus driver and attendant shortages and a high rate of staff call-outs led to daily impacts to service. Students were left waiting for buses that never arrived, or arrived hours late.
During an oversight hearing in March, State Superintendent Christina Grant apologized for the problems.
“I do want to deeply apologize to our families, our parents, many of which I have spoken to directly,” said Grant. “I know this is frustrating and disruptive especially when buses are late for pickup and it is stressful when drop off is delayed. We are working hard to minimize those occurrences.”
Still, OSSE is warning parents that the challenges remain.
In a statement, Grant said in part:
“Like 90 percent of school districts across the country, OSSE DOT continues to face a shortage of bus drivers despite aggressive hiring efforts, including signing bonuses up to $5,000 and hosting targeted hiring fairs. And, while we are deploying both near- and long-term strategies to provide timely transportation services to students and families, we know the shortage of bus drivers in the District will cause service delays for some families during the 2023-24 school year.”
Short-term strategies include contracting with private transportation vendors, offering attendance incentives to drivers and providing self-transportation services to families.
Long-term strategies include a commercial driver’s license academy “to build a pipeline of bus drivers, and continually working to improve route efficiency,” said Grant.
Her statement continued to say:
“We know that these strategies, no matter how innovative or layered, cannot solve the driver shortage issue, and we will continue working diligently to find ways to deliver the timely, reliable service our 3,800 students and their families expect and deserve.”
“It’s too little, too late. None of these are solutions for problems they’ve known about for literally years,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell is not feeling optimistic – she already has a backup plan in place for the first day of school.
“I’ve cleared my calendar so I can transport these kids, which is an all-day affair,” she said.
“It means I’ll have to wake up at five in the morning, wait for the bus. At approximately 6:30, if the bus isn’t there yet, we will know that we have to take our kids in ourselves. At which point I will get my student, pick up two other students, drive to Baltimore in rush hour traffic. Hopefully, get them there in time for school. Return to DC. And then repeat and rinse in the afternoon,” she explained.
DC News Now asked OSSE how many bus driver vacancies the agency is dealing with this year, but it did not answer the question. However, in March OSSE said there were 250 open transportation positions.
Currently, OSSE said it employs 550 bus drivers, operates roughly 500 routes and anticipates serving 3,800-3,900 students.
“These are students that are the most vulnerable, these are students that are at risk. And we continue to fail them. Superintendent Grant is failing them,” said Mitchell.