Five weeks ago, what happened at P721 in Manhattan on Wednesday would not have seemed extraordinary: Yellow buses pulled up by the main entrance and assistant teacher Miguelina Valerio took attendance and greeted students as they headed into school.
But after a bus drivers’ strike that lasted over a month, the yellow buses marked the end of nightmarish commutes for many parents and, for many students with special needs, a long-awaited return to class.
P721 is a District 75 school that provides occupational training to high school students. During the strike, Valerio said, only 70 or 80 students came to school each day out of a student body of 200. “More than half the students were missing,” she said. “Little by little they’re coming back.”
Citywide, 88.5 percent of students made it to school on Wednesday, fewer than usual on a day that was supposed to be the middle of a vacation until Hurricane Sandy struck and required makeup days. But in District 75 schools, 82.6 percent of students attended school — almost the same number as who attended on a typical day before the strike.
Not all of the students who are entitled to ride yellow buses took them, though. Pointing to the roster where she marked how many students had gotten off the most recent bus, Valerio said only 12 of the 20 students on that bus had come to school. “Maybe they don’t know that the strike is over,” she said.
For those who did get the news, readjusting to routines that had been normal was a new challenge. After her husband heard on the news Saturday that the strike was over, Edith Rodriguez said she immediately started preparing her first-grader, Leilany, to start riding the school bus again.
For the first three weeks of the strike, Rodriguez kept Leilany home rather than spending six to eight hours a day hours shuttling her to and from school. Then, in response to pressure from advocates, the Department of Education agreed to pay cab fare for the four daily trips it took Rodriguez to accompany her daughter to and from school.
The end of the strike means another transition. “I was telling her starting Saturday, then again on Sunday,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Last night I reminded her that the taxi wouldn’t come for us, that she had to go in the bus like always. It’s hard for her.”
Now Rodriguez, who works at a bakery, can return to her usual routine. Rather than rushing home to meet a cab at 2 p.m. and pick up her daughter, she has until Leilany’s bus arrives at 4:30 p.m. to finish work and run errands. “Today I am more calm and relaxed,” she said. “The strike days were very rushed.”
Parents across the city are finally able to return to their normal work schedules. “It was taking me five to six hours to go get my son, come back home, then go get him and bring him home,” said Shanna Yarbrough, whose second-grader attends a District 75 school in Sheepshead Bay. “Now I have all of those hours back.”
Still, the end of the strike brings a new set of challenges. Thousands of students, many with special needs, have been out of school for the duration of the strike. Now that the buses are running, those students are able to get to school, where they face transitions parents and special education advocates said many students are likely to find difficult.
“It’s like learning a new routine all over again … a month is a long time for a child. There will be a certain degree of starting over for some of the children,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children.
Students who missed a month of classes and special services such as speech and occupational therapy will be “playing a serious game of catch-up,” Moroff said.
Kendra, a mother who is PTA president of a District 75 school and who did not want her last name published, managed to bring her son to school every day, where he received services for his special needs. But, she said that if other families’ experiences are anything like what she goes through during and after summer vacation, they are in for a rough adjustment.
When students with special needs are out of school for long periods, she said, “things start to fall apart for them. They start to become aggressive or agitated. They need their routine.”
There’s another way that the end of the bus strike is like starting the school year over, Yarbrough said. She said early in the year, students with special needs are often assigned bus routes that don’t meet their special needs or consistently drop them off at school late.
“This January and February is only a slightly larger version of the stress families go through every September,” Yarbrough said. “So we are not new to this kind of stress level from the Office of Pupil Transportation, and I will see it again in eight months.”