Ana Lucía Novoa Buitrago is in first grade, but since schools shut down, she’s been surrounded by preschoolers.
While her classmates at Seattle’s Viewlands Elementary School wrapped up their first month of in-person school last week, Ana, an English learner, was in a room by herself at the Spanish immersion preschool where her mother works, clocking more school hours in front of her iPad. Just outside the door of the classroom rose the chatter of kids half her age, playing with toy cars.
Ana is here not because her parents didn’t want her at school, but because they didn’t have a way to get her there.
In Seattle, school bus transportation is being offered to a fraction of more than 16,000 students who qualify for it, leaving many families with no access to in-person instruction. Unlike its neighboring districts, Seattle Public Schools told families it could only guarantee transportation to kids legally entitled to it — namely, homeless students and some kids receiving special education services.
What happened was a domino effect: The expansion of in-person instruction in April mandated by Gov. Jay Inslee’s order a month earlier was much faster and broader than SPS had planned for. The hybrid schedule negotiated by the district and teachers union made it difficult for drivers to run multiple routes, and the district’s primary school-bus contractor, First Student, had furloughed many of the drivers assigned to Seattle schools since the start of the pandemic. That left the company with fewer than half the drivers that normally staff routes by the time school started. And this is all playing out against the backdrop of a national school-bus driver shortage.
First Student currently transports around 1,100 students, compared to 8,400 students on average in the period before schools shut down last school year, according to the district.
“We’re actively working to bring more busses into service and increase transportation availability for students,” district spokesperson Tim Robinson wrote in an email last week.
In the past month, parents, school employees and PTAs have scrambled to cobble together carpools to give students a chance to go to school in-person. Scores of kids who would otherwise be in school buildings are studying at home because their families, especially those working outside the home, cannot leave work in the middle of the day to give them rides. Several parents and school employees reported that some kids legally entitled to transportation have faced delays getting it.
“You see parents posting on social media about the first day back, and they’re so happy and it’s a dagger in the heart, because I can’t make that work,” said Alice Morales-Galvez, a parent with kids at Louisa Boren STEM K-8 school. Her children have stayed remote because she and her husband, Iván Galvez, don’t have the ability to take time off work to drive them to school.
Some parents like Heather Hart, a parent at Beacon Hill International Elementary School, were tapped by schools to give rides to students (with parental permission). In addition to dropping off and picking up her children, who attend three different schools, she drives a few miles south to pick up a pair of siblings living at their grandmother’s home.
Mary “M.C.” Nachtigal, a part-time nurse at two Seattle schools, uses her half-hour lunch break to drive home, pick up her sons and another set of kids, and take them to school. Another parent does the after-school carpool.
“I am incredibly privileged — and it feels like a stretch for me,” said Nachtigal, who set up a Facebook group to help families carpool. When she returns to work from her carpool duties sometimes, she gets out of her car and immediately starts screening for COVID-19 symptoms for other kids just arriving at school. “I am exhausted every day.”
Nachtigal, one of the nurses who played a role in the planning process for reopening, said she knows the district was caught off-guard by Inslee’s proclamation.
“On short notice, I completely understand it’s impossible” to scale up transportation to all students, she said. “But everything would have been solved if the planning had started last fall … I had been bringing up from the beginning that yes, special education goes first, but we have to keep in mind the next group and the one after that. That wasn’t at the forefront of our planning.”
At Seattle World School, a small district school that caters to recent refugees and immigrants, the transportation issues, along with a concern about the coronavirus, are a big factor behind a high rate of no-shows. The school draws attendance from all over the city.
“Sometimes they don’t show up, and many are late. They don’t even know how to use a city bus. They just moved to this country,” said Yuan Bai, who works at the school.
“It wasn’t a surprise”
This isn’t the first time school bus service in Seattle has been affected by driver shortages. Understaffed ranks and a driver strike at First Student caused many delays and canceled school-bus service in Seattle in 2017 and 2018.
Those shortages have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, said Chris Kemper, a spokesperson for First Group, the corporation that owns First Student. Thousands of drivers were furloughed during school closures, and many drivers found other jobs. Hiring new drivers requires more than a month of time because of the background checks and additional training required to work with children.
Morning/afternoon hybrid schedules like the ones in place for elementary school students pose a challenge for transportation because there often isn’t enough time between the morning and afternoon pickup and drop-off for drivers to run more than one route, district officials said.
It also means that drivers work fewer hours, making it a less enticing job, said Kemper.
The district gave notice to First Student to bring back more drivers last December, but planned for much lower levels of ridership, said Fred Podesta, director of operations for SPS. The original plan had been for special education students and pre-K through first graders to return first, with other groups phased in gradually.
As the district and union finished negotiating a contract to bring back elementary school students, Podesta and his team were asked to weigh in on the new hybrid schedules.
“We told them it would constrain the transportation we could offer … We let them know we could probably pull it off for those students obligated, and with individual education plans,” said Podesta. “It wasn’t a surprise after the fact.” A lack of drivers has extended to other industries, including rideshare services that cater to schools, said Podesta, making it hard even to find other contractors and modes of transportation.
With the district projecting a full-time return to in-person instruction this fall, Podesta said he doesn’t expect this disruption to last beyond this spring.
A hard adjustment period
Ana’s mother, Aura Natalia Buitrago Rivero, signed her daughter up for in-person school before learning transportation would be a challenge. On Thursday morning, the district notified her that it could arrange transportation for Ana at 11 a.m. outside their home, which would be several hours after both she and her husband had left home for their respective jobs.
“It’s impossible,” she said.
Every week, she gets emails from Seattle Public Schools prompting her to verify if Ana is symptom-free before she arrives in-person at Viewlands Elementary School.
It’s a frustrating reminder of the normalcy her daughter — a bubbly 6-year-old who aspires to be a singer — could have had: a break from a year spent in front of an iPad, struggling to absorb English lessons. Sometimes, straining for the right words to express herself, she gives up rather than asking questions, her mom said.
An optometrist has recommended stronger lenses for her glasses, even though her current ones were prescribed just six months ago. She complains of neck pain often from being seated in front of a screen every day.
“You learn the language best through communicating with your peers,” said Bai, from the World School. “Most of the time, you see all black screens across the board in classes.”
Buitrago Rivero and her family moved to the U.S. from Colombia in 2019, and the pandemic was a wrecking ball on their transition.
“We were getting used to this country, the language, the food, and then pandemic,” said Buitrago Rivero. “It was really, really hard on Ana. She always said I want to go back home.”
At Cometa Playschool last Friday, the preschool where Buitrago Rivero works, Ana was excited about her birthday later this month, and the idea of going back to in-person school one day.
“I like when we eat lunch at school and play outside and do most things,” she said.