When School Is Back, But School Buses Aren’t

A pandemic shortage of drivers forces parents to pick up the slack.

The latest COVID shortage has nothing to do with toilet paper or microchips. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
The latest COVID shortage has nothing to do with toilet paper or microchips. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Charell Peterkin walked her two daughters to their bus stops in Williamsburg on the first day of school Monday, her 7-year-old excited to return to a fully reopened school for the first time since the pandemic began. At 7:15 a.m., she was supposed to hop on a bus, then Peterkin was going to walk her 10-year-old daughter about a block away, where she would pick up another bus five minutes later. Instead, the three of them waited a half-hour for the first bus, which never showed up. That wait caused her older daughter to miss her bus to school altogether.

Peterkin’s tight schedule was derailed, forcing her to take the kids to Compass Charter School in Fort Greene by the L train and transfer to the G. The mishap happened again on Tuesday, forcing her to be late for work twice. She kept her kids at home on Wednesday to avoid being late again, even though they’d be marked absent.

“The government gave out money for everything else, but they forgot about the children and child care,” said Peterkin. “If there’s no busing, I can’t work.” Peterkin knew the first day back would be crazy, and she even quit her job as a postal worker to find a gig that accommodates working from home to quarantine should a student or teacher in her kids’ classes contract COVID. Now she’s looking for overnight remote work in case she needs to keep taking her kids to school. For now, Peterkin found someone to accompany her kids on Friday, but she’s not sure what she’ll do next week. “We are in a pandemic, and also I don’t have busing, and on top of that I have a child that’s special needs, so there’s just a lot on my plate.”

She’s one of countless parents across the country who’ve experienced a shortage of school-bus drivers, another sign of how the pandemic has disrupted society almost two years on. NPR reported the nationwide bus-driver shortage may be due to furloughs last year when schools went remote, while some drivers chose to retire and avoid contracting COVID.

Renee Applebaum decided to put in her retirement papers after seeing bus routes she said were overcrowded, putting drivers at greater risk of catching the virus and creating long work days for drivers. “I just felt my whole heart just sink,” the 60-year-old Sheepshead Bay resident said. “I went into a panic. I just got overwhelmed.”

Applebaum had no plans to retire after joining the industry nearly three decades ago as a single mom and it turned into a dream job. “I was able to be a mommy and go to work and make a respectable living,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m gonna drive this bus until the day I die.’”

The driver shortage in Massachusetts has gotten so bad the governor deployed the National Guard to drive kids to school, which has spurred some New York legislators to call for Governor Kathy Hochul to do the same. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday he hasn’t heard of a “bigger trend” for school transportation problems so far this year. “The first week or two of school, there’s always adjustments to be made, but if there’s something we can fix, we’re going to fix it right away,” he said during his daily press conference.

The president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 representing 8,000 school-bus employees in the city and Long Island, Michael Cordiello, told the Daily News that about 200 workers are needed. Department of Education spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon denied that the lack of bus drivers nationwide is affecting the city and said complaints about buses are down compared with 2019, but offered the department’s help to those who may find themselves without a ride. “This year, if a family’s bus has an issue, we’re offering reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses related to transportation, MetroCards, or free private-car service.”

The problem has left parents coordinating with each other to get their kids to school. At a bus stop in Crown Heights, Beatrice Tony-Jean’s third-grader, who also attends Compass, waited 20 minutes after the expected arrival time. Tony-Jean eventually gave up and drove her daughter and two other students to school.

“When I got there, the operations manager for the school — the one who’s in charge of busing — told me that buses were not showing up at all,” she said. The bus company that picks up the students, Jofaz Transportation, told parents there were no drivers and hung up. When Intelligencer tried to reach the company, three phone numbers listed for Jofaz either didn’t function or no one picked up. The company also did not respond to an email. “It’s like a skeleton crew,” Tony-Jean said.

Another mother, Amy Miles of Sunset Park, gave her 9-year-old son a phone so she could track where the bus, also run by Jofaz, was located while she waited nearly three hours for him to arrive home from P.S. 682 in Bensonhurst on the first day of school.

“Nobody knew where the bus was except for me, so I was trying to let everybody know because it had been hours before their kids got dropped off,” she said. Miles said her son, who is on the autism spectrum, is not supposed to be on the bus longer than 90 minutes. “Nobody seems to care about that.”

Miles was among parents who struggled to file a complaint to the Education Department this week, waiting on hold before eventually being disconnected.

Kristina Fiumano, whose kindergartner takes the same bus as Miles’s son, waited 40 minutes in the dark on Monday, since all families were given the same pickup time, 6:20 a.m.

“My son is autistic, and this waiting period was very hard for him,” she said, adding the two-hour ride home without access to a bathroom was also difficult for her son. “Still, to this day, we have not been given individual pickup and drop-off times.”

For now, Tony-Jean, the mom in East Flatbush, is counting on mutual support and the privilege of some flexibility in her job. “Collectively, as a school, we’re gonna need to just rely on each other to take each other’s kids.”

When School Is Back, But School Buses Aren’t