New York City Students with Disabilities and Their Families Feel Impact of Growing School Bus Delays

Most mornings, Bronx resident Rosalind Brown wakes up four times. Her multiple alarms ring at intervals, so she can check on her 13-year-old son, Jalen, after waking him up to get ready for school. The bus arrives at 6:05 a.m, to get him to school by 7:45.

But Jalen, who has attention deficit disorder, often arrives at Opportunity Charter School at 9 a.m. or later, Ms. Brown said. Some days, he has missed the first two periods.

“The bus is late, and you have children in there who are missing E.L.A. and math and science,” said Ms. Brown, referring to English and other classes.

For Jalen, taking public transportation is not always feasible. Navigating subway lines and bus transfers requires a focus that many children with learning disabilities lack. And 75 percent of subway stations do not have an elevator.

Jalen Brown attends Opportunity Charter School, which has the most recorded bus delays in the Institute’s central Harlem coverage area.

Ms. Brown recalled the time Jalen, growing confused in a subway station, handed his cash and MetroCard to a stranger. “Nothing happened, but imagine if they’d taken his cash and MetroCard? How would he have gotten home?” she said.

New York City’s school bus drivers have reported more than 135,000 delays since September 2015. The buses are not owned or operated by any government entity; the Department of Education’s Office of Pupil Transportation contracts with about 90 private vendors to take roughly 600,000 students to school in New York City and neighboring counties. The companies don’t change much; open bids to drive a city school route were conducted in 1979 and in 2013.

In Community Board 10 in Central Harlem, 692 school bus delays were reported from Sept. 2, 2015, to May 21, 2017, according to data recorded by the Office of Pupil Transportation. Of the 35 public schools and charter schools in that area, 28 reported at least one.

While almost 65 percent of these delays were caused by heavy traffic, nearly 14 percent was because of mechanical problems and buses not starting. Other listed causes included flat tires (3.6 percent), weather conditions (1.7 percent) and traffic accidents (1 percent).

Opportunity Charter School, which teaches grades six through 12, had 132 reported delays, nearly twice as many as the school with the next highest number, Public School 241. It had 79 in the period.

Schools With the Most Bus Delays

When a bus is late to school, the Office of Pupil Transportation records that delay in its database. Each block represents one delay recorded between Sept. 2, 2015, and May 21, 2017.

Source: New York Department of Education


About 460 students attended Opportunity Charter School in the 2015-16 school year, and more than half, or 55 percent, had a disability, according to the New York State Education Department’s data portal. Many of the students rely on school buses, often because they require special attention at their schools, which may be far from home. Like Jalen, many of the students at the charter school travel from the Bronx.

School bus delays can have a snowball effect on students with disabilities when it comes to learning.

“Many kids have a hard time transitioning from one environment to another. Even if they get to school a half hour late, it may take them an hour to get used to the environment,” said Lori Podvesker, an administrator at a disability advocacy group called INCLUDEnyc. She has a 14-year-old son with cerebral palsy who rides the bus from Brooklyn to his school in Manhattan.

The Department of Education and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, which represents drivers servicing about half of school routes, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Jason Maymon, a spokesman for Opportunity Charter School, said the school had endured problems with bus operators in the past, but did not have any with the current one.
The Office of Pupil Transportation operates a complaint and information hotline for parents to get information on school bus status and lodge complaints about service. But parents and advocates say that it provides only vague information on expected arrival times and offers little value.

“When you’re talking to someone on the phone, you’re not speaking to anyone with any power to change the routes or put another bus out there,” Sara Catalinotto, president of Parents to Improve School Transportation, which is pushing for the city to take control of its school buses, said.

After just two years, Ms. Brown is considering pulling her son out of Opportunity. “I put him in that school because the school has that ratio of kids with disabilities,” she said. “At that school he receives the services that he needs.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of delays caused by heavy traffic, mechanical problems and busses not starting. Almost 65 percent of the school bus delays were caused by heavy traffic and nearly 14 percent was because of mechanical problems and buses not starting. It was not 65 percent because of heavy traffic or mechanical problems, and nearly 14 because of buses not starting.