Edith Rodriguez’s daughter Leilany Andrade went back to school on Tuesday for the first time since the bus strike began three weeks ago.
Andrade, a first grader, has special needs and requires a classroom environment not available in her neighborhood. So she attends P224, a District 75 school in northern Queens not served by the subway.
Rodriguez and her husband would have to spend six to eight hours a day in transit — with their three-year-old son in tow — if they wanted to take Leilany to school and pick her up. And they couldn’t afford to front the money for cab fare or miss their shifts at the bakery where she works mornings and the restaurant where he works afternoons. So they kept Leilany home.
“All the last two weeks, she was asking me, ‘Why aren’t I going to school, when can I go back?’” Rodriguez said. “I tried to explain to her a little that there were no buses.”
Leilany’s story is one of many advocates say show that the Department of Education’s efforts to support families during the bus strike have fallen short.
A city policy rolled out Jan. 22 to let parents bill cab fares directly to the Department of Education, and the department has so approved more than 1,100 students to bill the city for their transportation costs, according to a spokeswoman. But the policy covered only the legs of each trip where parents were present. Under that policy, Rodriguez or her husband would still have had to take public transportation from P224 to work and back to pick Leilany up — spending four hours between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the bus or train each day.
After negotiating with the Department of Education for over a week, lawyers at Advocates for Children persuaded the department on Friday to authorize Rodriguez for all four taxi rides it takes to accompany her daughter to and from school each day.
“This is an evolving policy of the Department of Education,” said Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children. “Initially it was reimbursement only. Then it was pre-imbursement, but pre-imbursement for only the two trips where the child was actually in the car. Now under certain circumstances it covers all four, but that’s on a case-by-case basis. The policy is so evolving that this is the first week we’re actually seeing parents getting all four rides covered.”
Daily attendance in District 75 schools, which serve severely disabled students, remains more than 10 percentage points below average, meaning that more than 2,500 students are missing school each day who likely would not if buses were running normally.
Transportation is not the only issue families are facing. While Leilany was stuck at home, Rodriguez was determined to help her complete several packets of class work provided by the school. Rodriguez doesn’t speak English, so she entered all of the text into Google Translate.
At a press conference Tuesday called by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio to push for a resolution to the strike, special education parent and advocate Lori Podvesker said the materials posted online by the Department of Education aren’t particularly useful even to English-speaking parents of students with special needs. The materials are organized by grade level, but, she said, “our kids are not on grade level. Their educational plans are very tailored to their needs and where they are developmentally.”
De Blasio called on the mayor to negotiate with the union and end the strike. “Obviously parents did not expect to have to use the do-it-yourself approach to education,” he said. “This can’t go on like this. It just can’t continue, because parents can’t just figure out how to address the needs of their children educationally if they can’t get them to school. You can’t do it yourself at home.”
Parents who are overcoming steep obstacles to get their children to school face other challenges.
Lucia Emile still hasn’t gotten reimbursed for more than two weeks worth of cab fares she paid out of pocket to bring her son from their home in Brooklyn to the Center for Autism Charter School on the Upper East Side. She filed for reimbursement but hasn’t heard anything from the Department of Education.
So far, the department has received 3,556 reimbursement requests, but does not have information about how many reimbursements have actually been issued, according to a spokeswoman.
“We paid all three weeks of fares and they haven’t given us any reply or told us what is going on,” Emile said. “They made it seem like, we’re really going to take care of you. Just go online, get the form, mail it in, and we’ll reimburse you. We thought by now we would get the payment from the first week.” She said she does not know anyone who has been reimbursed.
The strike comes at a time when the city is working to overhaul how students with disabilities are assigned to schools. For the first time this year, schools were told that they had to accept all students in their zone who applied, regardless of the students’ disabilities.
Concern that some students might be placed in inappropriate settings to satisfy the city’s mandates has some critics wary of the reforms. But the transportation nightmares created by the bus strike point to one benefit of educating students closer to home.
“It’s not like busing is a great perk special ed students get,” said Shanna Yarbrough, the parent of a second-grader who has autism. “The schools that are closest to us don’t have classes for our children. We’re not welcome there. We have to go elsewhere.”
Many of the students affected by the strike already have trouble with transitions. “He’s off his game,” Yarbrough said of her son, who has had to adjust to taking the bus and train from Park Slope to his school in Sheepshead Bay.
“This change has a domino effect into a lot of aspects of his daily routine. It’s very detrimental,” she said.
Yarbrough said one of the most frustrating aspects of the strike is not being able to get answers to her questions. She said that when she called the Office of Pupil Transportation, she was told, “I don’t know anything, check the news,” and instructed to call 311, the city’s customer service hotline.
Yarbrough said she called 311 and was transferred to parent services, then told that any questions about the strike not related to reimbursement should be directed to Chancellor Dennis Walcott via mail.
“That was the extent of the help I could receive exhausting every resource I could find online and calling 311,” Yarbrough said. “That was the best information I got. Here’s a mailing address, you can write a letter.”