Thousands of Chicago kids are left without a bus ride to school amid driver shortages
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Class is back in session this week in Chicago with one big problem. Thousands of students don't have a bus ride to school. The city is cutting back on bus services because of a driver shortage that's affecting other districts around the country, too. Nereida Moreno from member station WBEZ reports.
JESSICA DRISCOLL: Now we've been double-parked for, like, five to 10 minutes, and all these cars are mad.
NEREIDA MORENO, BYLINE: Jessica Driscoll (ph) is driving her kids to school this year in a carpool with her neighbor's son. She owns her own design business, but today she has to leave work early to pick them up. It's a hundred degrees outside.
DRISCOLL: So at this point, we left my studio at 3:15. It's now 4:22. And so for an hour and 15 minutes, we've been in the process of pick-up, and we're still not going to be home for another half-hour.
MORENO: As a business owner, Driscoll has some flexibility in her schedule, but any time away comes with a cost.
DRISCOLL: I would be wrapping up my workday, talking to and taking care of my team, talking to potential clients, building my business. I mean, I love these rugrats, but it's a lot.
MORENO: The Driscolls are one of thousands of families in Chicago and across the nation who are having to find alternative ways to get their kids to school. Chicago Public Schools says it only has half of the drivers it would need to transport all eligible students, and all 50 states have seen at least one instance of a major driver shortage so far this year, according to USA Today. Experts cite two key issues - driver pay and recruiting. Officials with bus companies in Chicago say they're facing an extra challenge. Many candidates cannot pass background checks.
BRENDYN MORGAN: We'll get, you know, some 2,000 apps in a given season. And due to, you know, background check issues, we're only able to hire maybe, you know, 2 or 300, maybe 400.
MORENO: That's Brendyn Morgan. He's an assistant manager at First Student. The bus company tries to add incentives.
MORGAN: We'll throw an extra kicker on top of their hourly rates or do attendance bonuses, retention bonuses, sign-on bonuses.
MORENO: But those things so far haven't been enough. Right now kids with special needs and those who are unhoused are being prioritized for bus service. The city is also on a limited basis, allowing some families to use other public transportation. But that's only being offered to families in magnet schools and specialty programs. As a parent, Driscoll says that's not enough.
DRISCOLL: Bussing wasn't great last year. Our daughter, some days, would get home 90 minutes after school. But then we found out, thanks to WBEZ reporting, that they actually had more drivers this year than last year.
MORENO: That's right. CPS has slightly more bus drivers now than it did last year. A spokesperson says its efforts to shorten the routes and get kids to and from school faster means fewer students are able to ride buses. If she had the option, Driscoll's daughter would rather ride the bus.
EDIE: It's funner (ph) in the bus because I have all my friends.
MORENO: Nine-year-old Edie (ph) wears her pink hair in a braided updo on a ride home from school this week. She's disappointed about losing her route and has already lost contact with a friend she made on the bus last year.
EDIE: I haven't seen her around school, so the bus was pretty much the only connection I have with her. And now I don't know where she is.
MORENO: Driscoll started a petition to get the city to reverse course. CPS says it might restore some busing as the year goes on. For now, Jessica Driscoll will continue splitting drop-off and pick-up duties with her neighbor. She's not sure what to do if one of them gets sick or if a work emergency comes up. But she's determined to make it work.
DRISCOLL: Our kids aren't going to be, like, completely ruined by this decision because women are going to figure it out. Parents are going to figure it out.
MORENO: At least, she says, until the city hires a lot more bus drivers. For NPR News, I'm Nerida Moreno in Chicago.
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