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Two girls and a woman color in coloring books together at a dining room table.
Maryah Santos, 14, holds Marshall, her Paw Patrol plush toy, as she colors with her cousin, Isabella, 6, and mother, Shannon Lutz. Maryah, who has an intellectual disability, has yet to receive bus transportation services, as outlined in her individualized educational program, due to a bus driver shortage.
Desiree Rios for Chalkbeat

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Bus driver shortage leaves some Newark students with disabilities behind

Maryah Santos, 14, listened as her mom tried to explain why she was stuck at home once again last week. School had started in early September and still no bus was headed to their home in Newark’s east ward.

A teenaged girl holding a stuffed animal poses for a portrait in her backyard.
Maryah Santos, 14, in her backyard.
Desiree Rios for Chalkbeat

“I love school so much, mommy,” Maryah said.

“I know, you love school,” Shannon Lutz told her daughter, whose intellectual disability makes it difficult to grasp why the bus hasn’t come and why she’s been home instead of reconnecting with teachers and classmates at school.

Maryah, who enjoys riding on the school bus with her headphones on while listening to hit music radio stations such as z100, is one of the hundreds of students statewide who still do not have a bus assignment as of Tuesday — the fourth week of school.

In New Jersey, where no virtual learning option was offered this year, 7,000 students were either left without bus service or affected by last-minute changes to transportation caused by a shortage of school bus drivers that hit its peak this month, just as schools were reopening, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday.

A national bus driver shortage, exacerbated in part by the pandemic, has affected hundreds of thousands of students across the country as they returned to school this year.

Particularly hard hit are students with disabilities who have bus transportation included in their individualized educational programs. Adding onto a year of disruptions to their education, they started this academic year with confusion over how to get to school. Their families, devastated from the pandemic, were forced to come up with last-minute solutions to get their children to school.

Beyond the challenges of understanding why they’re not in school, students such as Maryah are also missing out on vital individualized services, such as speech, occupational, and physical therapies. Lutz says her daughter has lost out on at least 30 hours of these services, plus many more hours of academic and life skills learning.

Without district bus transportation and without a car, Lutz hasn’t been able to find an alternative way to get her daughter to her out-of-district placement in Fairfield that specializes in special education. The Newark Board of Education has offered her tickets for public bus transportation, Lutz says, but it would take nearly two hours to travel the 20 miles from Newark to Fairfield. Her daughter, she fears, might not respond positively to the stress of that commute.

“This is supposed to be ninth grade for her. Her first year in high school,” Lutz said. “She loves school but she’s getting the short end of the stick here.”

Districts throughout the state have been scrambling for ways to temporarily address the bus driver shortage. Camden City Schools said it would give parents $1,000 to drive their children to and from school. Many districts, including Newark, are consolidating bus stops, merging bus routes, and offering bus tickets for public transportation.

Of Newark’s 40,000-plus students, just 9% of students, or about 3,574, were eligible for busing during the first week of school, said Quanika Dukes-Spruill, executive director of the pupil transportation department for Newark Public Schools. Dukes-Spruill shared the status of the bus shortage impact in Newark at a public meeting mid-September for parents of students who need special services.

About 85% of the eligible students received bus assignments, she said, which left nearly 536 students, either who have IEPs or who qualify for busing based on distance from school, without transportation.

Questions sent to the Newark spokesperson and pupil transportation department requesting up-to-date figures of students without bus assignments went unanswered over the last five days.

Dukes-Spruill said at the parent meeting the district expected to have every eligible student assigned to a bus by Sept. 27.

However, as of Tuesday, Maryah was still without a bus assignment. It’s likely she’s not the only one in Newark, and far from the only one in the state.

(Left) A teenaged girl holds a stuffed animal while sitting on her bed. (Right) A custom door sign reads “Maryah” with pink and purple highlights.
Maryah holds onto Marshall, her Paw Patrol plush toy.
Desiree Rios for Chalkbeat

“The national bus driver shortage and response to this crisis has also impacted us in Newark,” district spokeswoman Nancy Deering said in a statement emailed on Friday. She added that Newark has also offered parental contracts to families with out-of-district placements, a per diem agreement to reimburse them for driving them to school.

State code puts the responsibility on the student’s home district to provide transportation to an out-of-district placement for students with disabilities.

“We’ve always had bus shortage issues in this state, but I have never seen it to the extent that it is this year and for this long lasting,” said Peg Kinsell, director of public policy at SPAN, a statewide advocacy network that assists parents of children with disabilities. “It’s not like we’re just shaking out the cobwebs, it’s that a lot of school districts don’t have an answer to this and that makes it a crisis.”

Kinsell says direction needs to come from leadership at the state Department of Education. An email and three phone calls to the DOE went unanswered.

At a news conference on Monday, Murphy said the state is working on “matchmaking” between the state Department of Labor, “where folks are looking for jobs,” and districts that need to fill positions like bus drivers.

“This is a profession and occupation that is far more complicated due to the very specific licensing requirements,” Murphy said. “No question it’s an issue but we are directly involved in matchmaking trying to get this solved as fast as possible.”

Several factors have contributed to the shortage, including fears over health and safety with transporting students, including some who are unvaccinated against COVID-19, as well as pay gaps that have existed for years.

Financial, academic impact

The lack of busing has impacted families financially as well as students academically, socially, and emotionally.

Sharline Samuel had to find a way to drive her son, Kellan Lewis, who has autism and is non-verbal, to McKinley Elementary School for nearly two weeks before a van started picking him up, she said.

On the days she had to drive him 20 minutes to school, she worried about the time she was taking away from work.

“I’m putting my job on the line every time I leave the house to take him to school and back,” Samuel said. Some mornings, she didn’t have gas, she said.

“I have one income,” Samuel said. “I cannot afford anything outside of the necessities.”

During the public parent meeting with the district transportation department, one parent said she spent $50 to accompany her son on a public transit bus over the course of several days. At that point, the district was only offering free bus tickets to students but has since changed that policy and started offering tickets to caregivers.

“I’ve spent approximately $50 that I really could use on something else, like a bill — the bus should not be a bill for me,” that parent said.

In Lutz’s case, Maryah being at home has made a dent in her weekly budget as she’s had to spend more money on groceries.

A mother holds her daughter in a tight embrace.
Shannon Lutz hugs her daughter Maryah, 14.
Desiree Rios for Chalkbeat

“When she’s in school, they’re feeding her breakfast and lunch,” Lutz said. “It’s affected us financially. It’s affecting my child behaviorally and in other ways I probably don’t even know of yet.”

Lutz said her daughter is fed up with staying at home and has been refusing to follow instructions, which is unlike her usual demeanor.

“Considering we’re already coming off of a year of virtual instruction and virtual therapies — the impact of missing out on in-person services is huge for students with special needs,” Kinsell said.

She recommended that caregivers log every hour of missed therapy and instruction time in case they want to file a complaint. Compensatory education would attempt to make up for the failure of providing services to a student with an IEP.

“My daughter is being punished and not for anything that is her fault,” Lutz said. “To someone else, maybe this doesn’t seem like a long time. But to my daughter, it’s been a very long time. It could feel like a year from her perspective.”