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CPS talking to Lyft, Uber after bus drivers quit over vaccine mandate

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said “this is an all-hands-on-deck moment” after some parents learned over the weekend that bus routes were unstaffed.

Students getting off a school bus outside Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. College Prep in September 2016.
A bus driver shortage has left some CPS students without transportation to get to school.
Sun-Times file

As thousands of Chicago Public Schools families scrambled to find transportation to the first day of school Monday because of a mass bus driver resignation that officials attributed to anger over a vaccine mandate, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said her administration is in talks with rideshare companies to take children to their schools.

The move would be highly unusual and could cause yet another set of dilemmas to sort through as parents figure out how to get their kids to classes.

About 2,100 students, including 990 in special education, were given no more than two days’ notice that their bus route no longer existed. District officials said they received word Friday from the private companies with which they contract for bus services that 73 drivers had resigned because they refused to abide by CPS’ vaccine mandate, which requires all employees and contractors to get shots by Oct. 15. The requirement was announced more than two weeks ago.

“CPS believed there were bus drivers in place,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a back-to-school news conference Monday at Ombudsman Chicago South alternative school in Chicago Lawn. “It was only Friday that the notification came from those third parties that they had a shortage of drivers. That is not CPS’ responsibility. We have a contract with those companies. We had an expectation that they were going to fulfill their contract.

“We’re going to work through these kinks,” the mayor said. “I’m sure you’re going to find individuals for whom this wasn’t a great start. But we’re going to work hard to make sure that we solve those and address those problems.

“This is not on CPS. And I want that to be very clear.”

Though the district received late notice about the 73 drivers resigning, CPS already knew there was an overall shortage of more than 400 drivers. CPS had adjusted to set up routes for the approximately 14,500 students who use school buses, but the existing shortage meant the district was headed into the school year operating on thin ice if a situation arose like the resignations last week. The district now has 770 drivers — about 500 fewer than what’s needed, officials said.

CPS is offering families $1,000 upfront and $500 monthly for a travel reimbursement until the problems are fixed.

Public transportation is one option many students use. CTA buses and trains are free for CPS students on the first day of school, then cost a reduced rate of 75 cents per ride the rest of the year. But it’s tough for many kids, such as those with severe disabilities, to take transit to school.

Lightfoot said when she heard of the bus problem she told her aides to reach out to rideshare companies Uber and Lyft to “see what they can do to provide resources to help our families who need alternative means of transportation to get the kids to school and get them there safely.”

The mayor said the city has “started conversations” with the two companies but said plans hadn’t yet been worked out.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” she said.

It isn’t clear how quickly those rideshare services could solve the problem. Representatives from Uber and Lyft could not be reached for comment.

Neither Uber nor Lyft has mandated vaccines for their drivers. But the same CPS requirement that officials said led to the bus driver resignations would likely also apply to the rideshare drivers as third-party contractors.

And the mayor made a point Monday to offer a silver lining of sorts about the bus driver resignations by saying it was important for drivers to be vaccinated when transporting kids.

“Let’s just step back for a second. We have talked at length about the fact how critically important it is to make sure that our students are safe and safe in school,” Lightfoot said. “As a parent, I wouldn’t want somebody who is unvaccinated in a bus with particularly young kids and particularly kids who are most vulnerable not being vaccinated.”

School districts also run specific background checks on employees, contractors and volunteers that rideshare drivers would likely need to undergo. And Uber and Lyft have rules prohibiting anyone under 18 from riding without an adult.

Asked by a reporter if CPS would send teacher aides or other employees to ride with kids, Lightfoot said, “You’re a little ahead of us, but as soon as we know what the plan is going to be, we’ll definitely let you know.”

Contributing: Mitch Dudek