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For one family, bus strike means 8 buses, 4 trains, and few options

One month into 2013, Maria Uruchima has already used up almost all of her sick and personal days getting her son to school.

On the verge of pulling him out of school, she found a partial solution to scheduling nightmare created by the bus strike — but one that still leaves her missing work and commuting almost four hours each day.

“I’ve started writing letters to the chancellor and the mayor saying, this is my situation,” Uruchima said. “I’m one of those parents that’s really struggling. I can’t afford to keep my son home because you guys aren’t getting it together. What can I do to help move this process along?”

Before the strike began two weeks ago, her son Alejandro’s bus picked him up from their home in Corona, Queens, at 6:40 a.m to take him to P.S./I.S. 49 in Middle Village. His 10- and 13-year-old siblings walked to school in the neighborhood, and his three-year-old sister spent the day with her grandmother. That gave Uruchima, who works in nonprofit management, plenty of time to get to her job in Brooklyn by 8:30 a.m.

Now, with most yellow buses off the streets because of a labor dispute between bus companies and drivers, Uruchima must accompany Alejandro to and from school. He has a learning disability and cannot take public transportation alone. All together, Uruchima’s round-trip commute takes eight buses and four trains, and she has been spending nearly half her workday in transit, using personal and sick time to make up for the lost hours. But those days are running out.

Here’s the route they’ve taken daily since the strike began:

Together, Uruchima and Alejandro take the 7:10 a.m. bus. When the bus is late, Uruchima says, Alejandro misses part of the morning tutoring program that helps him keep up in his classes.

They transfer twice and arrive at school by 8 a.m.

Uruchima takes a bus and two subways to get to work in Brooklyn by 9:15 a.m., then does the same commute in reverse, leaving work at 1:45 p.m. to make it to P.S./I.S. 49 by 3 p.m. She and Alejandro take three buses home.

Uruchima has been searching for a solution since day one of the strike, knowing that if it continued, she would be stuck between two bad options: putting her job in jeopardy and keeping her son out of school.

Uruchima brought Alejandro to school in a cab for the first few days of the strike, but it was a strain to front the money and wait to be reimbursed by the Department of Education. More than a week into the strike, the department rolled out a plan to help parents bill the cost directly to the city, but accessing that option brings its own complications, so Uruchima stuck with the bus.

If she could pick up Alejandro just a few hours later, she thought, she might be able to make things work. That would let her spend more than four and a half hours a day in her office in between commutes. She asked the school’s parent coordinator if Alejandro could join the after-school program.

“At the end of this week, I will have used up my personal days,” Uruchima said on Tuesday. “What then? I have no idea…I haven’t heard anything form the school at all. I’ve been the one reaching out to them, saying, what are the options you guys can provide me for him to stay there?”

For the first two weeks, Uruchima said, she was told that the school couldn’t put him in the after-school program because of uncertainty about how long the strike would last.

Uruchima was seriously considering having her son spend the day at home with his grandmother. In anticipation of absences due to the strike, schools across the city are posting material online, and Uruchima figured she could go through the materials with her son when she got back from work.

“Pretty much he would have to wait for me to come home to give him those instructions that they have online on the Department of Education,” she said.

Then, this morning, the school agreed to enroll Alejandro in an after-school program that lasts until 6 p.m. But that’s a band-aid solution reached by a creative parent and a single school. So while Alejandro’s attendance and his mother’s job are safe for now, but many other parents across the city whose children can’t travel on public transportation alone still face the lose-lose decision Uruchima did until today.

Alejandro’s school’s solution reflects the strategy the city is using at this point in the strike. As Chancellor Dennis Walcott wrote in a message to principals on Tuesday, “We have shifted from broad initial preparations to more tailored options for students disproportionately affected by the absence of bus service.”

Recognizing that many parents are still stuck, the special education advocacy community is ramping up pressure on Mayor Bloomberg to find a way to end the strike. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has called a press conference for Tuesday afternoon.

The strike shows no sign of ending. Mediation efforts have failed, and the National Labor Relations Board ruled today that the strike is legal and can go on.

Uruchima counts herself lucky for her new schedule: She’ll leave at 7 a.m., get home at 8 p.m., and spend nearly four of the 13 hours in between commuting until the bus strike ends.

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