NYC pols push fix for transportation woes plaguing students in shelters

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A yellow school bus is parked in front of a school in Brooklyn. A new City Council bill would force city officials to find fixes for delays in transportation to and from school for students living in shelter.
Photo courtesy David Handschuh for Chalkbeat

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For New York City’s nearly 30,000 students living in shelters, unreliable transportation has long been one of the hurdles in getting to class, contributing to significantly lower attendance than their peers, advocates have charged.

Now, the city must find solutions, according to a newly approved City Council bill nearly five years in the making.

Still, the bill, originally proposed in 2018, offers no quick fix: It creates a task force that has one year to publish a report identifying the barriers to transportation for students in shelter, as well as issue recommendations on how to address them.

Advocates, who have raised the alarm on this issue for years, remain optimistic, particularly because the bill requires heads of multiple city agencies to brainstorm together.

The mayor must appoint members consisting of representatives from multiple agencies, including the departments of housing preservation and development, social services, the education department, as well as at least two parents of children who live or previously lived in shelters, organizations that manage shelters and bus companies. Given the timing of the bill, which still requires the mayor’s signature, the group would convene under the administration of Mayor-elect Eric Adams, once it becomes law.

“I think what the task force can really focus in on is, how can we make sure that busing is set up promptly and students and their parents know exactly when it is starting so that the lack of transportation doesn’t pose a barrier to attendance,” said Jennifer Pringle, director of Project Learning In Temporary Housing at Advocates for Children.

Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015 pledged to extend bus service to children in kindergarten through sixth grade who live in a shelter, following an NBC New York report that showed the lengthy commutes for these students. (Families who refuse bus service can receive Metrocards instead for caregivers and children.) But some families still deal with delays in getting placed on a route or, once they’re approved for service, with no-show or late bus service — sometimes even getting dropped off to the wrong school, advocates have reported.

“To have the bus not show up, or show up to the wrong address, or show up to the wrong school — all of these things impact attendance, not to mention the parents’ ability to focus on securing permanent housing,” Pringle said.

These problems are even harder on the roughly 40% of families who live in shelters that are outside of the borough of their child’s school, Pringle said. Five years ago, de Blasio unveiled a plan to prioritize families in shelters closer to their child’s school, but thousands continue traveling long distances.

Advocates believe that shoddy transportation options contribute to lower attendance rates for students in shelter, who had an average attendance rate between 81-82% in school years before the pandemic — roughly 10 percentage points less than children who are permanently housed, according to data compiled by Advocates For Children and the city’s Independent Budget Office. That means homeless children missed, on average, about 30 days in the school year.

A mother who lives in a shelter in Bushwick was approved for bus service in November for her two children, who are in third and fourth grades — three months after they started classes at a charter school in Midtown Manhattan. (The mom asked to remain anonymous for safety concerns.) Even when the city tried to provide a solution, it was still rife with issues, she said.

While awaiting a bus route, the mom turned to a city-subsidized cab service called Limosys. The newly available prepaid service connects parents and children to free cabs to and from school to “ensure there is no disruption for students in shelter getting to school,” according to an education department spokesperson.

But the mother found the cabs often arrived late or sometimes did not come at all. As a result of having to make a last-minute scramble on the 45-minute subway commute, her children were marked late eight times, she said. Four separate times, drivers asked her to pay for the ride but backed off after she insisted that it was a free city service.

A spokesperson for the education department declined to comment on most of the issues that the mom described, but said they’ve asked Limosys to remind drivers that the service is prepaid and they shouldn’t ask families for money.

The mom’s children finally got placed on a bus route just before Thanksgiving, but they are picked up at 5:30 a.m., about two hours before school starts. Some days, her kids “are miserable” because of how early they have to awake. Additionally, her children can no longer participate in after school clubs as they did pre-pandemic and before they entered the shelter system because they don’t get bus service home after school hours — another issue that the bill requires the task force to address.

“Sometimes, when you receive help, you expect things to be better,” the mom said. “I was really so happy with the cab service and so happy with the bus in place that when they don’t work — and I’m so used to doing things on my own — I would get so down on myself.”

Problems like these are what advocates and Council member Stephen Levin, who sponsored the bill, hope the task force will tackle.

Levin, who unsuccessfully proposed the task force nearly five years ago, seized on the opportunity to push for it now, as the de Blasio administration is winding down.

“We think there are really meaningful opportunities to make some policy changes here and bring issues to the forefront that [the administration] might not always see or hear,” Levin said.

The group must form within 60 days of the mayor signing the bill into law. If de Blasio vetoes the bill, the Council would likely override it given that it won unanimous support. If the mayor takes no action within 30 days of the council passing the bill, it automatically becomes law. A spokesperson for City Hall did not immediately say whether de Blasio would sign it.

The de Blasio administration made “critical strides” in providing transportation for students in shelters and looks forward to working with City Council further on the issue, education department spokesperson Jenna Lyle said in a statement.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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