Some CPS special ed students endure 2-hour bus rides as transportation problems continue to start year

CPS officials say the situation, which they chalked up to a driver shortage during the pandemic, is far better than last year.

SHARE Some CPS special ed students endure 2-hour bus rides as transportation problems continue to start year
Celeste O’Connor and her daughter Chloe Eugenio pose for a portrait at their home in Lincoln Park.

Celeste O’Connor and her daughter Chloe Eugenio pose for a portrait at their home in Lincoln Park.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Even though her daughter had an hour-long bus ride to school last year, Clarissa Edwards thought the length was reasonable, given the school’s distance from home and the number of kids on the route.

This year, though, the girl’s ride to the same school for the first two days of classes has been almost two hours each way.

That’s a difficult pill to swallow — particularly for a special education student with disabilities.

“It’s super hard as a parent to justify putting your kid through four hours on the bus to get to school,” her mother said. “It’s just really hard.”

Her daughter hasn’t been sleeping or eating well, Edwards said, and was “crying and begging to not have to go to school” after only a couple days.

Chicago Public Schools officials have worked to address busing problems that plagued the district last year, in some cases leaving special education students without routes for months. The district blamed a bus driver shortage a year ago and has offered better compensation and incentives to beef up staffing. District CEO Pedro Martinez said this week that CPS has enough bus drivers to operate the necessary routes.

CPS also changed its transportation policy this year, prioritizing buses for special education and homeless students — for whom its federally mandated to provide rides to school — ahead of selective enrollment and magnet school kids.

CPS tells families: Be patient

When classes started Monday, most families who requested transportation received it. But route lengths have been the new problem. Martinez said about 20% of children have routes over an hour long, while 3-4% are extremely long, closer to two hours. Officials wouldn’t say how many students have routes to start the year, but Martinez said over the summer he expected CPS to bus 15,000 kids.

“We do have some long routes,” Martinez said. “In some cases it’s a family who lives far south and have a placement at a private therapeutic school that’s all the way in the other part of the city. ...

“I just ask families, be patient with us, give us a couple weeks. There’s going to be opportunities for us to get more efficient on the routes.” But he said the district was in a “much, much better place than we were last year.”

Christine Palmieri’s son Miles has a 6:55 a.m. pickup this year, an hour earlier than last year. His school, the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School in Hyde Park, starts at 9 a.m. In the afternoon, the bus is supposed to leave a few minutes after 3 p.m. and he doesn’t get home until 5:10 p.m.

“When you’re on a bus for so much of your time, you’re missing out on opportunities to really be with your community,” Palmieri said.

Palmieri, an outspoken special education advocate who has heavily criticized the district in the past, said she also hasn’t been able to get anyone on the phone or a response to emails about her son’s route. And she doesn’t think a driver shortage is the problem, because there are still two buses heading to her son’s school, just as there were last year, but the route times are longer. So, in her view, the problem is planning.

Christine Palmieri speaks to the Chicago Board of Education at a public hearing in 2017.

Christine Palmieri speaks to the Chicago Board of Education at a public hearing in 2017.

Sun-Times Media

Edwards’s daughter has attended CPS for most of her academic career, but as with many disabled students, the district eventually determined it didn’t have a school that could provide her with the proper support. So she was placed at a special education school in north suburban Northbrook that serves children with complex learning disabilities. CPS is still legally required to pay for her education and provide transportation.

Edwards’s daughter gets picked up at 6:40 a.m. School starts at 8:30 a.m. With the morning rush hour, it’s about a 35-minute drive from the Edwards household to school — but students on the route live all over the city.

There are 10 students on the bus route, all going to the same school, some who have even earlier pickup times than Edwards’s daughter. Edwards called CPS’ transportation office to ask for a solution — ideally splitting the kids to two buses — but was told the route would stay the same, she said.

CPS is offering parents a $500 stipend if they want to opt out of transportation. But Edwards can’t miss work and has to drop off her other child at school, and private transportation is prohibitively expensive.

“We’re honestly probably a few days away from a complete refusal to go to school and just a total shutdown,” Edwards said of her daughter. “That’s going to be the case for a lot of these kids. So hopefully something gets figured out before CPS loses another chunk of students.”

Buses late, too

Celeste O’Connor’s daughter Chloe is one of the 80% of students whose bus rides are manageable. If the route goes according to plan, Chloe should have a 25-minute ride to and from her Lake View neighborhood school, Alcott College Prep.

But her ride — this year it’s a medical van for disabled students — hasn’t shown up on time this week for her 7:26 a.m. pickup. On Monday the van got there at 8:30 a.m., and Tuesday it was 7:55 a.m. School starts at 7:45 a.m.

Celeste O’Connor and her daughter Chloe Eugenio play a game of cards at their home in Lincoln Park last year.

Celeste O’Connor and her daughter Chloe Eugenio play a game of cards at their home in Lincoln Park last year.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chloe’s mom took her to school both days and picked her up in the afternoons because the van again was around 40 minutes late.

“Our situation in this particular case is not as bad. But that’s how pathetic it is, that I’m saying it’s no big deal,” Celeste O’Connor said.

The van also hasn’t had a bus aide, which Chloe requires in her IEP — an Individualized Education Program, which describes the unique services each special education student legally must be provided. O’Connor said she’s “willing to chalk that up to some bureaucratic snafu,” but she’s had a hard time getting anyone on the phone to let the district know it has to add an aide.

“She can walk but she has a very unsteady gait, and she’s non-verbal, and we’ve always had a bus aide,” O’Connor said.

The van driver has been “so nice and apologetic, and he’s doing the best he can with what he’s given,” she said, hoping the route would get smoother in the coming weeks.

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