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Chicago schools meets bus deadline but faces pressure to cut down 90-minute rides

A yellow school bus sits outside a school on Chicago’s South Side.

Chicago Public Schools was able to secure bus routes for about 1,200 students by Tuesday and is working to find routes for incoming requests as it tackles long commutes for some students.

Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat

This story has been updated with a response from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Chicago Public Schools met a self-imposed deadline Tuesday to get bus routes lined up for about 1,200 students, and officials say they will now work on new transportation requests.

Officials said they are also trying to cut down 90-minute commutes for about 365 students, but that could take longer. Last month, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said he wouldn’t be able to guarantee all routes would be under an hour. 

In a statement, district officials said they are committed to getting transportation for all eligible students amid a national driver shortage. They also said the vast majority of students with disabilities were assigned to bus routes before the first day of school.

The district is processing new transportation applications and is working to fill requests within two weeks, according to the district. But it’s unclear how many new requests have been made since the first week of school.

More than 13,000 students receive transportation from the district, with most rides averaging about 40 minutes. But 365 students have routes that exceed 90 minutes, Martinez said last month. 

We are monitoring and reviewing routes closely to see how we can improve efficiencies, especially for a small percentage of students who are on bus rides that are over 90 minutes,” the district said in an email statement.

Earlier this year, Chicago’s Board of Education adopted a resolution that prioritized transportation for students with Individualized Education Programs and those who lived in temporary housing ahead of general education students who qualify for busing to get to magnet and other selective schools. 

About 170 of the students with lengthy rides have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), a legally binding document that outlines services for students with disabilities, 504s, accommodations for medically fragile or students with physical or mental impairments, or have temporary housing.  

Parents and special education advocates Miriam Bhimani and Terri Smith filed a complaint with the state last week, alleging students with IEPs were being denied free appropriate public education because of late arrivals and early departures from school.

According to the complaint, the district had not done enough to shorten rides to under an hour. 

The district must provide documents to the Illinois State Board of Education by Sept. 28  that include information of all students with IEPs whose rides exceed an hour as well as plans to resolve the problem, according to a letter addressed to district leaders.

Jacklyn Matthews, an ISBE spokesperson, said the state board had received the complaint but could not provide further details at this time.

During last month’s board meeting, Martinez said the district was still dealing with a bus driver shortage but was in a much better place than last fall.

On the first day of school last month, the district said it had secured bus routes for thousands of students who made requests before the July deadline. 

Last school year, the district failed to provide reliable transportation for students with disabilities — some of whom didn’t have bus rides until after February. 

This year, Martinez said the district has been able to leverage multiple forms of transportation including taxis, vans, and $500 monthly stipends for parents to drive students to and from school. About 1,230 families have accepted the voucher as of Labor Day, district officials said. Chicago Public Schools has also increased bus driver wages $20 per hour to be competitive with suburban districts. 

In acknowledging the long commutes for some students, the CEO noted that he wouldn’t be able to guarantee all routes would be under an hour. He asked for patience as officials look to address the problem.

But union leaders including Stacia Scott, SEIU vice president, said two-hour long rides to school were unacceptable and needed to be corrected immediately.

“No special education student should be on a bus longer than one hour per ISBE guidelines,” Scott said during last month’s board meeting.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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