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Shortage of bus drivers hurts Buffalo Public Schools' academic recovery from COVID-19

Bus carrying kids between Buffalo schools and the West Side's Fr. Belle Center
Jack Norton
Belle Center
A school bus carries kids between Buffalo Public Schools and the West Side's Belle Center.

With schools trying to claw back from the academic damage of COVID-19, the region’s largest school district, Buffalo Public Schools, is having problems just getting its classrooms filled each day.

getting students to and from school on time help in the academic recovery.

That's because there's a shortage of bus drivers to get students to and from school on time. For Buffalo high school students, Metro Bus has had problems getting enough drivers and mechanics.

It’s not for lack of effort and even different ideas, like BPS studying paying parents to drive their kids to class, a proposal with all sorts of quirks and legal rules.

At-large School Board Member Terrance Heard said academic performance and good bus services are interlocked.

"If a child is up at five o'clock in the morning to get dressed and on the bus corner at 6:30 in the morning to go to school ... and possibly goes to an after-school program afterwards, they probably won't get home until 7 or 8 o'clock at night on a regular," Heard said. "That's a hardship on the child and his ability to learn.”

BPS Superintendent Tonja Williams makes it very clear this isn’t a problem unique to the state’s second-largest school system, citing national problems.

“It is not a Buffalo Public School issue. It is not a First Student issue," she said.

For many students in Buffalo, it isn’t just getting from the front porch back to the front porch. Many take part in the array of academically helpful after-school programs, mostly cut last year by the continuing bus issue.

Belle Community Center Executive Director Lucy Candelario said late buses can lead to other problems.

“Our after-school program ends at 6 o'clock, for the kids K-8th Grade, and it was difficult," she said. "They were late being picked up in the mornings and they are late being dropped off in the evenings. And it creates a nightmare for the parents then. They have to constantly call either the center or the Transportation Department and a kid is still on the bus.”

Heard was been pushing for changes, from recruiting drivers and aides for buses to making more of the after-school programs in the neighborhoods, so kids can be dropped off there and parents can pick them up and walk home.

Williams has a vision of what she wants the school system to be.

“To eliminate academic achievement and opportunity gaps and to assure that every student, every single student regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status, language, and or Zip Code will receive an excellent cultural and linguistically relevant education in every single one of our schools," she said.

That’s complicated by students who are trying to overcome the academic erosion of COVID and the need to catch kids up.

The Belle Center's Candelario said her programs as part of that catchup, with the bus problems slowing the catching up.

"You have less time to sit with them and help them with their homework, less time for them develop socially, less time for them to interact with their peers, learn social skills, whatever the case may be," Candelario said. "Absolutely, less time. You can't teach a child when your program is between 2 and 6 o'clock and after 6 o'clock, your staff is gone. How are you going to teach anything?”

Only if the buses run on time and the school district and the Buffalo Teachers Federation are fighting over changing the times when schools open, the “bell times” and changes in those bell times are barred by the teacher union contract. The two sides are in contentious labor talks.

Changing the bell times could ease the bus shortage, as it has in Niagara Falls.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.