ITHACA, N.Y. — Rebecca Murphy-Fish is the parent of two kids that attend Lehman Alternative Community School (LACS) in Ithaca. She lives in the Town of Caroline, where the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) announced earlier this year a dedicated bus line would be established for LACS students in the area. But come the first week of school, Murphy-Fish and her family hadn’t received a notice of when the pick-up times would be, or the drop-off times, and her attempts to communicate with ICSD were met with radio silence, she says. Then the bus never came. 

From the start of the 2022 LACS school year on Sept. 6, the issue would continue on like that for two whole weeks, Murphy-Fish said.

“I was trying to be very patient and understanding during all of this, knowing how short staffed they are but the entire first and second weeks of school, both myself and staff from LACS tried to call the ICSD transportation department. No one ever answered the phone or returned calls,” Murphy-Fish told The Ithaca Voice

It took an unannounced visit by the Murphy-Fish family to the ICSD Transportation Office to rectify the issue, and by Sept. 20 the buses were arriving at their home to take their kids to school.

The Murphy-Fish family was able to drive their kids to school while they worked to solve their case of a missing bus. But that option wouldn’t be available to all families with kids attending ICSD schools and, while one of the most aggravating accounts, what the Murphy-Fish’s dealt with isn’t exactly an isolated incident. 

Parents and caregivers have shared anecdotes about ICSD buses coming late to pick up students, or dropping them off late. Sometimes, up to an hour or more. 

One parent complained that the bus route serving their child is being canceled after just two weeks of class being in session. One caregiver told The Voice that ICSD buses have been at least 30-40 minutes late almost every day. Another parent posted on social media that a situation like that “is totally untenable for most families—subtract 50 degrees and add some snow and it will be even less ok to have kids and families not knowing when the bus will come.” 

Some parents and caretakers who are able to have begun to explore or pursue other means for  getting their students to school. Some are just driving their kids to school. One parent told The Voice they are sending their child, who’s a student at New Roots Charter School, to class on the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) bus. Carpooling is on the mind for others.

Much of the issue around ICSD’s buses running late has to do with the staffing challenges ICSD’s transportation department has faced. ICSD currently has 65 drivers to run 63 daily routes, leaving the bus service vulnerable if drivers are absent. On Wednesday, the school district released in a community letter that COVID-19 is still a “barrier to consistent staffing.” ICSD wrote that 14 bus drivers have been needed to isolate after being exposed to COVID since the start of the school year merely three weeks ago. 

The shortage of drivers is a national issue. Obtaining and maintaining a commercial driver’s license is a costly and time consuming effort, and comes with a high degree of liability. And while minimum wages have gone up, bus drivers’ wages have remained largely flat. Bus drivers at ICSD can reach a wage of up to $22.66 an hour — a wage that some parents and caregivers believe is contributing to the shortage. 

The hours are also demanding. Drivers are needed to service students in the morning and into the late evening, making their work day last around 12 hours long. In the City of Buffalo, the shortage of drivers has led the Buffalo Board of Education to pursue paying parents and caregivers to drive their kids to school to lighten the load for limited school bus fleet.

Of the 65 drivers ICSD has, ICSD said that 12 are new drivers and that the district currently has 11 drivers in training. ICSD Public Information Specialist, Katie Hart, relayed that if all these 11 drivers were to pass and begin running bus routes then the district would be “very close to filling all our vacancies.”

The pandemic has left lasting issues for ICSD to deal with transportation challenges like this. The staff of bus drivers shrank as students learned on a hybrid model of remote and in person schooling. As the number of students riding the bus returns to 2019 levels, ICSD said that 400 more students are riding the bus this year compared to the 2021-2022 school year.

Despite parents and caregivers being able to appreciate the challenges ICSD is facing, spotty communication from the district has not helped ameliorate anyone’s frustration.

By and large, ICSD did not create the expectation that the start of the school year might see these kinds of bussing issues — at least not for parents and caregivers spoken with for this story. A persistent complaint from this group has been the difficulty of getting a call through to ICSD officials, and the lack of notifications the district has put out to alert parents and caregivers to the bussing issues.

The Ithaca Voice began reaching out to ICSD on Monday inquiring about the bussing delays and relaying the complaints of parents to the district. Then, on Wednesday, ICSD released the aforementioned community letter regarding the staffing challenges they’ve been facing, giving some explanation to the cause of the delays, and apologizing for any gaps of communication with families in the district. 

“We understand that despite our best efforts, our communication regarding transportation delays is not always timely and we apologize to our families who are experiencing challenges with children arriving and departing school on time,” reads the letter. “While we expect the delays to begin to ease over the next two weeks, we will work diligently to improve communication on transportation updates.”

In a separate statement from ICSD to The Voice, the district said that “We have tried to do our best with robo call alerts when buses are delayed. In the future, we plan to send communication at the start of the school year that better outlines what families can expect surrounding transportation.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn