Parents worried about whether a Boston school bus would show up to bring their children to their first day of class Thursday morning as the district deals with a driver shortage.
"Her bus was supposed to pick her up at 6:43. We waited at the bus stop until 7:30, and the bus didn't show up," said parent Elizabeth Foxworth-Jones.
The mother gave up after waiting too long Thursday morning for her daughter's school bus to Madison Park High.
"Very frustrating, especially as a working mom, because it made me late for work," said Foxworth-Jones.
The night before school started, Mayor Kim Janey promised bus drivers would be there to pick up school children during the first televised debate with Boston's five mayoral candidates Wednesday night.
"When it comes to the bus drivers, I'm really encouraged that our bus drivers and [the bus company], and the school department have reached an agreement," she said. "We are expecting and welcoming all of our bus drivers back to welcome our children tomorrow."
But her opponents, including John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief, were skeptical.
"I've got a lot of parents that have called me, and they're not so confident," Barros said at the debate. "I just remember talking to two bus drivers before getting here and they're not so confident. They've called this the worst of any school year that they've been a part of in terms of the chaos and information that's been sent, and what they've been given in terms of routes. They don't know what's going on."
Thursday, City Councilor Andrea Campbell, another mayoral candidate, said she had heard of issues from families.
"There was a student just on my street who was waiting for his bus that did not show up on time," Campbell said. "Other parents have called in and talked about their children's bus didn't show up at all."
"We need to get it together here," said City Councilor Michelle Wu, also running for mayor. "This is about ensuring we have that big-picture vision for how we support our schools overall, but getting every little detail right really matters to the day-to-day lives of our families."
The Boston school bus drivers' union was pushing to postpone the start of school the year, calling the bus routes "the worst fiasco we've witnessed in our careers." The union said the district gave them more than 100 additional routes than they've had in prior years at the last minute.
Janey and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius were at the Orchard Gardens School Thursday morning amid additional concerns around coronavirus safety.
Experts say testing is will be important this school year, along with other measures like proper ventilation, vaccinations and mask wearing. In all, 2,100 public and private schools in the state offer some form of COVID-19 testing, including schools in Boston.
Boston Public School officials decided to move forward with starting classes as planned, but they were expecting some service disruptions Thursday due to the driver shortage. Impacted families were expected to be notified Thursday morning. Working parents were worried they would be left in a pinch.
"It's not fair to just tell us our kids can't go to school because there is no bus," parent Mimi Mercy said. "They might as well start they going back to their whole thing of on-line learning, I guess. They were supposed to fix it so the kids can go back to school and now the kids are gong to fix their first day of education.”
School officials estimate there are roughly 60 open school bus driver positions in Boston. There are roughly 100 open school bus monitor positions.
Boston Mayoral Candidates Debate Coverage
Some of Boston's mayoral candidates politicized the issue during a debate Wednesday night, hosted by NBC10 Boston, Telemundo Boston and NECN in partnership with the Dorchester Reporter and the Bay State Banner.
"I was one of those parents that actually got a recorded voicemail, leaving me a message saying there was going to be a shortage of bus drivers with little information as to who to call where to get information how to figure out if your family would be affected. That's just absolutely unacceptable," candidate Andrea Campbell said. "We did know there's been a bus shortage — there's a national bus shortage right now. We should have been proactive in planning for this."
City Councilor Michelle Wu, in her second round of being a mother of a Boston Public School child, spoke to the disparities between the facilities, programming and resources among the schools within the district and called for a vision, rather than band aid fixes.
"I just want to emphasize that, as parents, we know every single little logistical detail has a huge impact on the day to day stress levels and experience and feeling of connection and trust for our families with the school district," Wu said, "but we need to center that the issues we're talking about now are very much because we have been missing a long term vision and a plan for a long time in BPS."
School officials said they have been working with Janey to hire more drivers. They will have standby drivers to help the first week and they are also offering incentives such as paying drivers an extra $50 a day if they show up to work 15 minutes early for the first week.
Boston Public Schools says the district had a 57% on-time rate this morning, which it says is better than the five-year average for the first day of school. The district says 85% of buses arrived within 15 minutes of the bell Thursday, and that 96% arrived within 30 minutes.
"We're doing everything we can to make sure that very single bus is available for students," Janey said Thursday.