From the moment Johnmeisha Currie’s daughter started attending Jefferson Middle School Academy, the Southeast youngster has enjoyed a 10-minute bus ride to and from school with other special-needs students.
Currie said the bus service, coordinated by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE)’s Division of Transportation (DOT), has allowed her daughter to avoid the perils of public transportation. It has also ensured that Currie could get to work on time every day without worry.
However, all of that ended on the morning of Jan. 9 when Currie’s daughter walked home from the bus stop to tell her mother that her bus never arrived. Currie said that OSSE announced a schedule change days before, due to a shortage of drivers, that would delay the arrival of the bus to the stop by 15 minutes.
Currie recounted eventually coming to learn that the morning bus service had been terminated. Amid all the confusion, she secured Uber rides for her daughter’s morning commute while demanding clarity about when OSSE would reinstate the morning bus service.
Even with the strain on her pockets, Currie said she would do anything to make sure her child makes it to school safely.
“I don’t want my daughter to be on the Metrobus and in the mix with other students,” Currie said. “There’s too much going on. I don’t mind taking her to school. I want her to get an education. There’s nothing that’s going to stop me, [but] OSSE needs to start hiring drivers.”
An OSSE spokesperson said OSSE didn’t terminate routes, but combined them and added more children onto some bus routes. The agency has also combined other routes and sent drivers and attendants to run routes consecutively. Dropping and not serving routes sometimes came as a last resort, the spokesperson told The Informer.
For weeks, Currie and other parents have visited OSSE’s website for daily DOT updates. On Friday, Jan. 20, a dozen bus routes experienced delays of up to 90 minutes during afternoon pickup. OSSE-DOT also cut off service for two routes. Hours earlier, during the morning rush hour, two bus routes had also been canceled while students on more than 100 bus routes arrived at school well after the bell rang.
A significant portion of the 3,700 young people who ride the 600 buses and hundreds of bus routes throughout the District have experienced these scenarios since shortly after their return from winter break. They are eligible for reimbursement related to ride-sharing and self-travel to and from school.
Michael Riley, OSSE’s director of student transportation, said these problems aren’t unique to the District. In February, OSSE-DOT will host a hiring fair to address staffing issues. As of now, 25 drivers and attendants are in the last stages of pre-employment.
“Reports have estimated that nearly 90% of school districts nationwide are experiencing bus driver shortages this school year,” Riley said. “As we continue to stabilize our routes as quickly as possible, we expect many routes to begin experiencing the consistency and reliability that [families] expect. However, due to our staffing challenges, we also expect some routes to continue to experience service delays for the foreseeable future.”
One out of five students are estimated to have an IEP, or individualized education program, in District schools — which qualifies them to ride school buses dispatched by OSSE-DOT.
Council Ensures Proper Accommodations
Over the last several months, the D.C. Council has embarked on a journey to ensure that OSSE develops standards that ensure that special-needs students receive proper accommodations. At the latest juncture of that journey, Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) has focused on summer programming.
Henderson recently introduced the Out of School Time Special Education Inclusion and Standards Act, which would mandate OSSE to develop standards that out-of-school time providers would adhere to when serving students with IEPs.
In shaping this legislation, Henderson has spoken with officials within the Department of Parks and Recreation, District of Columbia Public Schools and OSSE. Henderson also recalled speaking with parents who recounted instances when program coordinators that couldn’t accommodate their special-needs children discouraged them from applying for a program or, in many cases, left their children to their own devices throughout the program’s duration.
Henderson said those conversations have revealed a deeper and more prevalent problem with how the District government interacts with special-needs students, whether they’re riding a bus on their daily commute or attempting to enter an out-of-school time program.
“Large public school systems have struggled with how to serve students with special needs without litigation, receivership and decrees,” Henderson said. “For any parent in D.C., finding a slot for out-of-school time programming is a challenge if you have a child with special needs. This is not a niche issue.”