Shahnaz Habib’s 10-year-old daughter was ready for a momentous day back at school. After learning online for more than a year, she told her fifth grader that, years from now, she would want to remember what it was like to return to the classroom for the first time amid a pandemic.
“She got so excited about taking notes about this day and writing it down,” Habib said. “She got her backpack ready last night with her notebook and an extra mask, hand sanitizer. She was ready for her historic day in school.”
With a lunchbox full of her favorite food — pasta — her daughter headed to the bus stop Monday morning with her father and waited. For an hour.
The bus never came, and she did not make it to school.
Busing is a perennial issue in New York City, especially in the first weeks of school while contracted companies smooth out routes. The city spends more than $1 billion on buses that can run hours late — if they show up at all. It’s especially a problem for students who have disabilities and rely on buses to travel to programs tailored to their needs.
On Monday, the first day of school for almost 1 million students, parents reported long wait times to lodge complaints with the Office of Pupil Transportation. There’s no publicly available data yet on how extensive problems were this year as schools opened at full capacity for the first time in more than a year.
“We apologize that these families experienced these issues on the first day of school and are following up with them to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said department spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon.
She said parents can reach out to the Office of Pupil Transportation to escalate their case if they are having trouble reaching the bus vendor by calling 718-392-8855.
Busing complaints have grown in recent years. In 2019, there were an average of 500 delays a day during the first weeks of school, which was up 5% from a year before, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat in partnership with The CITY.
NeQuan McLean, a parent leader in Brooklyn’s District 16, said his son’s bus was two hours late on Monday morning — and then took the second grader to the wrong school.
His wife called around 11:30 a.m. saying that the school informed her their son was absent. For an agonizing half hour, they didn’t know where he was. It wasn’t until they got in touch with the bus driver, who relayed the address where the boy had been dropped off, that they realized he had been taken to his old school. He transferred this year to a school that specializes in teaching students with dyslexia.
The experience was harrowing for McLean’s son.
“Everything is supposed to be fixed. I got a new route and everything. But he doesn’t want to get on a bus,” McLean said. “He don’t want to end up at the wrong place.”
The bus never showed up for Elena Romero’s daughter either. The fourth grader is supposed to be bused from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to P.S. 133. Pick up time is 7:05 a.m. They waited until 7:45 a.m.
“We went into crisis management mode,” Romero said.
A single mom with two other children to get to middle and high school, she left her elementary schooler with a babysitter at the bus stop, and hopped in a car to drive her older children. Eventually, another parent stranded at the same bus stop offered to bring her daughter to school.
School administrators tell Romero to keep calling the bus company, but it feels hopeless.
“As if somehow the phone call is going to make the bus miraculously appear,” she said.
She felt the mishaps acutely because, with health concerns over COVID, she’d rather be able to keep her children home. But there was no option to learn remotely this year.
“No one cared whether or not we wanted remote. So you’re forcing us to have no choice, our back is against the wall, and then you’re not going to have bus service?” she said.
On Monday, the Habib family considered booking an Uber, but the ride would have cost $45 from Prospect Lefferts Gardens, where they live, to P.S. 770 in Crown Heights. They tried taking a public bus, but after just a few stops, a fight broke out in front of them when a passenger refused to wear a mask.
“Passengers were screaming and swearing at each other. We got off after a couple blocks and she just started bawling and said, ‘I just want to go home.’ So we just went home,” said Rollo Romig, the girl’s dad. “We just literally couldn’t get to school.”
Luckily, her parents were both working from home on Monday, so the girl spent the day reading library books and playing computer games. It’s probably better that she stayed home, her parents figured, because they weren’t convinced a school bus would have shown up for the return trip from school. They were right to be skeptical — multiple parents at the school reported that buses did not show up in the afternoon.
Busing has been so unreliable that, in the past, the Habib family and parents in the neighborhood paid for a private van to school.
“We really don’t know what we’re going to do tomorrow,” Habib said.