Thousands of Seattle families scrambled to get their children to and from school Monday after Seattle Public Schools slashed 142 bus routes. 

The indefinite bus suspensions, announced late Friday, are necessary because of a national bus driver shortage and because some drivers are declining the coronavirus vaccine that’s mandated for public employees, school officials say. Of the 18,000 students eligible for bus rides, about 6,740 could be affected, although the actual number could be lower — about 3,000 to 4,000 students, said Fred Podesta, assistant superintendent of operations.

School officials didn’t have attendance numbers available Monday afternoon, but said there were no reports of excessive absences.

Seattle contracts with a national company, First Student, to provide bus service, leaving the district “incredibly hampered” because all the information has to first come through the contractor, said Mary Ellen Russell, a parent and member of the city’s School Traffic Safety Committee. Parents whose children’s bus routes were suspended were notified by email late Friday.

More

The cuts, mostly concentrated in the city’s north end — a move meant to preserve service in schools with higher economic need — had a more acute effect on children attending specialty public schools that allow students from all over the city. 

Advertising

Seattle school officials said they prioritized routes serving students in special education classes, those with individualized education programs or disabilities that make them eligible for public transportation services, students experiencing homelessness, and foster students. Students attending schools at interim sites, or those that have “high proportions of historically underserved students,” won’t be affected either, district officials say. Seattle has about 600 bus routes, so the cuts amount to nearly a quarter of all routes.

SPS officials say they’ve been exploring giving drivers an extension to receive the vaccine, but nothing has been finalized.

The district has had issues with late buses since the start of the school year, and Podesta said cutting bus routes will help. Up until this point, Seattle has had 40 to 60 late bus routes daily; on Monday, just five routes were late, running between 20 and 90 minutes behind.

On Monday, there were no buses in sight in the 45 minutes before the first bell at Cascadia Elementary School, a school with a gifted program in the Licton Springs neighborhood. Nearly 7% of its children came from low-income backgrounds last school year. 

Parents pulled up in minivans or walked with their students to school. They said losing the service was a hassle, but one they were managing to work around. 

“I’m honestly pleased that unvaccinated drivers are choosing not to be near my children,” said Peter Mitchell, a parent dropping off his daughter, Eloise, on Monday. His daughter typically took the bus home in the afternoon to the Broadview neighborhood. Instead, his wife will now pick the fourth grader up after school, and wait 20 minutes for the pickup time at their other child’s private school. 

Advertising

Katy Portier, who lives in Wallingford, said she spent Sunday coordinating a carpool with parents of kids at her daughter’s now former bus stop. 

Poor service has been a trademark of the Seattle school bus experience, many parents say. Portier remembers a time two years ago when the bus dropped her daughter, then 8 years old, off at the wrong location, prompting a frantic search. She bought her daughter a cellphone afterward. 

But this year, the bus had been remarkably consistent and punctual until the cut, said Portier. 

The driver seemed upset when she broke the news on Friday, said Portier, and told her that she’d be reassigned to another route. The driver told parents she was vaccinated, Portier said. 

The family will make it work, she said. Both she and her husband work from home. 

“We’re not scraping by, we will make this work, even though it’s very frustrating,” she said. 

Advertising

“I support SPS’ decision to [preserve] service for kids who won’t survive without it.” 

According to the school district’s website, there were still about seven routes with delays ranging between 20 minutes and an hour on Monday. 

Shane Belau, a South Park mom whose oldest son, Alden, is a sixth grader in the highly capable cohort at Madison Middle School in West Seattle, was also affected by the cuts.

Last week, Alden got a temporary ORCA pass from the school. Belau figured she could drive him from South Park to White Center to catch a public bus that would take him to the school. They did a practice run together on Saturday, and it’s actually a little shorter than his regular school route. 

The current transportation issue “is a pain in the butt,” Belau said, but she’s grateful that she works for herself — she owns a Pilates studio in Lower Queen Anne — and can limit her work schedule to pick Alden up in White Center after school. 

“I’m sure some parents have it harder,” she said. “I mean, how are they supposed to work and do this?”