UniteGPS – Never underestimate the power of concerned parents in seeking legislative action to tackle the bus driver shortage while supporting students with special needs. Certainly worthy of news coverage, the UniteGPS team is elated to write about an NYC parent group currently vying for a school bus “Bill of Rights” to benefit both students and drivers.

First, some background.

NYC Parent Group

Last month, The 74 non-profit news website published an article showcasing the Parents to Improve School Transportation (PIST NYC) and its new campaign for school bus equity. Included in this piece were poignant anecdotes from special needs students unable to attend class due to the lack of bus coverage in NYC. One of these students was fifth-grader Tiheem Ortiz who couldn’t secure reliable transportation from his Brooklyn home to the District 75 school in Queens. In other words, the bus started to never show up.

Ortiz happens to be a student with special needs and ended up missing their favorite class, gym, based on the tight arrangements. Instead of assigning Ortiz a school bus, the New York City Department of Education hired a car service to transport the student that came an hour before the school day ends.

NYC parent group tackling the bus driver shortage 

To prevent stories like Tiheem from repeating, PIST NYC announced last month a new campaign to launch a school bus Bill of Rights. According to the group’s Facebook, the ultimate legislative goals are to improve access to transportation for special needs students, as well as ensure more respect for the “riders’ civil rights, the workers’ job rights, and everyone’s safety.”

Recently PIST NYC announced the new campaign at a press conference on Feb. 4 held over Zoom and facilitated by founder Sara Catalinotto. On Saturday, March 19 the association will be marching across the Brooklyn Bridge to start promoting the school bus Bill of Rights.

What the group hopes to accomplish this year is a referendum on the November ballot in NYC, but first, they must gather enough signatures from voters. Political support for the petition comes from state Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon of Brooklyn and Nick Smith, the city’s first deputy public advocate.

READ MORE: New York aims for 100% electric school bus fleet by 2035

In the long run, PIST NYC aspires to create preventative measures against routing problems and the possibility of students getting stranded. With this comes efforts to strengthen the driving workforce as well as more communication channels with the Office of Pupil Transportation at the Department of Education. 

Countless NYC parents have faced educational barriers for their children since COVID-19 came into the picture. By now, most are physically and mentally exhausted from the new demands brought onto them by the bus driver shortage and pandemic. When parents can’t transport their children to school themselves, students across NYC districts are still missing school because of the fragmented route coverage.

How the bus driver shortage affects students with special needs 

Past reports discuss how the bus driver shortage has disproportionately impacted special needs students who continue to experience strenuous school bus delays. For example, a 2019 story talks about an autistic toddler riding a bus for three consecutive hours as well as a bus driver dropping off a student with Down syndrome at his former elementary instead of middle school.

As covered by Chalkbeat, over 50,000 special needs students depend on taking a yellow school bus every day to school in NYC. Fellow NYC non-profit news organization THE CITY then analyzed data from the Office of Pupil Transportation, uncovering 12,060 delays for special needs students during the first 24 days of the 2019 school year. In sum, that equates to 500 delays per day, doubling from 44,279 to 80,765 over five years.

The private companies managing the majority of the city’s school bus fleets claim these accidents are resulting from heavy traffic, mechanical problems, or “other” issues. On the other hand, PIST NYC says that these incidents are having detrimental consequences for special needs students.

As students sometimes find themselves in precarious circumstances waiting for a bus that never arrives, parents of special needs students worry about the higher likelihood of humiliating bathroom incidents, bullying in the interim, as well as potential assaults.