As special-needs students in the District experience their 10th week of prolonged daily commutes, parents continue to demand answers about why the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) didn’t immediately tackle bus driver staffing shortages that had been anticipated since the beginning of the school year.
Elizabeth Mitchell, a Ward 3 mother whose son attends a special-needs school in Baltimore, said her son’s bus driver warned her in the fall about the impending retirement of 60 bus drivers and the scheduling adjustments that would follow upon students’ return from winter break.
Without much clarity from OSSE, however, Mitchell recounted not being able to adequately prepare.
“OSSE started sending weird messages in November about changes coming but they couldn’t elaborate on what,” Mitchell said. “We knew Jan. 9 was going to be bad and we would be losing a bus driver.”
Once her son’s bus didn’t arrive on the morning of Jan. 9, Mitchell took him and his classmate on the hourlong trip north on Interstate 95. The last time she recounted her son having normal bus service was on Jan. 10.
Mitchell said that since then, her son’s bus arrives every morning 30 minutes earlier than the time window OSSE provides. Commutes back home are more than an hour because drivers are responsible for more than one bus route. Once buses make it back to the District, drivers zig-zag across the city to get students home.
For Mitchell’s son, that means often missing after-school appointments with specialists. Mitchell once even had to pick up her son from school because his bus was involved in an accident and OSSE couldn’t immediately replace it.
Such experiences, Mitchell said, have diminished her son’s morale, which has affected his academic and socioemotional well-being in the classroom.
In reaching out to other parents of special-needs students, Mitchell learned that, in light of the bus delays, parents are risking their economic security to get their children to school during work hours. That’s why, over the past few weeks, she and others have spoken at D.C. Council performance oversight hearings and reached out to council members.
Mitchell has also written a resolution she’s hoping that advisory neighborhood commissions across the District will support.
“Why wouldn’t OSSE do something about this?” Mitchell said. “Most of the children using OSSE’s transportation are already dealing with disabilities and most of them are in need of structure and stability.”
State Superintendent Grant Addresses Parents’ Concerns
In an email, an OSSE spokesperson said 45 bus drivers retired from the agency at the end of last year. In speaking about the prior notification given to parents, the spokesperson said that OSSE sent emails explaining that routes, route numbers and pick-up times would change in January.
As they explained, the emails told parents that buses will experience scheduling changes of less than 30 minutes. The changes ended up being more than 30 minutes to ensure consistent delivery service for all children, the spokesperson told The Informer.
On Monday morning, OSSE reported 37 late bus arrivals of up to 90 minutes. Staffing challenges also meant that students on one of the bus routes experienced service delays as OSSE Division of Transportation attempted to assign a driver to that route.
Days earlier, on March 10, OSSE reported four routes experiencing similar problems.
During a D.C. Council performance oversight hearing in early March, State Superintendent Christina Grant described the new routing system that went into effect this year as an attempt to better serve the needs of special-needs students. She acknowledged the nationwide bus driver shortage as a hurdle in meeting that goal, noting that OSSE is addressing it with a $5,000 hiring bonus to attract prospective employees.
In her council testimony, Grant said OSSE gave contingent offers to 34 drivers and 81 attendants during a mid-February hiring fair that the agency hosted in conjunction with the DC Office of Human Resources. The hiring fair, which took place at the Old Council Chambers in the Marion S. Barry Building in Northwest, attracted more than 2,400 applications. Nearly 1,000 people appeared in person to engage District human resources personnel.
Meanwhile, OSSE has created attendance incentives for its bus drivers. The agency has also brought on private contractors while taking steps to train bus attendants to become bus drivers. For parents, OSSE doubled the parent transportation reimbursement rate, increased the capacity of its parent resource center and upgraded the OSSE website to provide updates on bus service delays.
Another strategy Grant highlighted during the council hearing involves collaborating with DC Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools to limit the number of students who can subscribe to bus services.
Some parents, like Chioma Oruh, have since pushed back against that suggestion, saying that the District needs to ensure that all special-needs students can access OSSE’s bus services.
For more than two years, Oruh’s children have attended a special-needs school located outside of the District. Oruh said her decision to pull her children out of DCPS before the pandemic hints at the bevy of issues special-needs students have faced in the local school system long before the bus delays.
That’s why Oruh continues to question OSSE’s sincerity about improving the quality of transportation, and other aspects of the special-needs students’ academic experience. With mullings among school administrators about, once again, creating classrooms exclusively for special-needs students, Oruh has become more adamant about exposing the discrimination against D.C.’s special-needs population.
“We know that transportation is the determinant of education outcomes,” Oruh said. “Our young people are being shipped out of D.C. The level of education that our children deserve is not here.” These are political problems. These are the things we don’t talk about and why it continues to happen. [We can’t] even receive a simple memo saying you’re going to be late. My children are not valued in this system.”