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NYC School Bus Strike Takes Toll On Disabled Kids


For nearly a month, school bus drivers and aides have been on strike in New York City. They're fighting for job protections. The strikes has left thousands of children without yellow bus service. And while many are able to take public transit to school, students with disabilities who rely on door-to-door bus service have had a harder time. Yasmeen Khan from member station WNYC reports on how families are scrambling to get their kids to and from school.

YASMEEN KHAN, BYLINE: At least the Noris-Weitzman family has a car.

JOSH WEITZMAN: No traffic today, which was nice.

KHAN: Josh Weitzman just drove nearly two hours roundtrip to pick up his son, Abraham, from school. They live in Queens. And Abraham, who goes by Abey, attends a school on Long Island, nearly 20 miles away. It's fair to say Abey's in favor of the strike.

WEITZMAN: Because instead of sitting on the bus, you know, and having a long bus ride, he gets to drive to work with, you know, to school with daddy.

KHAN: Abey has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. He's not able to speak, so he uses a device to communicate. The city pays for him to attend a private school outside of the district because there isn't a public school closer to home that can accommodate him. Thanks to parents with flexible work schedules, he's been going to school every day since the strike the began.

WEITZMAN: I mean, we're lucky. And we can see by the attendance at his school that we're a lot luckier than a lot of families from New York who can't get their kid to school.

KHAN: The school bus strike started in mid-January after Mayor Michael Bloomberg put out new bids for some bus routes. He said he wanted to find savings in an industry that hadn't had new contracts in more than 30 years.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: The $6,900 per student is far more than any other school system in our country. For example, Los Angeles just pays $3,100 per student.

KHAN: The rising costs have to do with transporting more students outside their neighborhoods and complex routes so that some special needs students aren't on the bus for too long. But the new contracts do not include job protections for veteran drivers. The mayor says the city can't legally include those protections because of a recent court decision. The bus workers' union says the city is misinterpreting that ruling and the job protections should stay in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When do we need it?






KHAN: The picket lines shut down many of the bus routes, leaving parents with limited options for transporting their children, like Lisa Quinones-Fontanez. Without a car, this is how she gets to her son's school.

LISA QUINONES-FONTANEZ: I have to take the 6 train to Metro-North, and then I have to take a Metro-North train upstate for about 40 minutes, and then I have to take a cab.

KHAN: She spoke during her lunch break in the lobby of her office building in Manhattan. She lives in the Bronx, but her son, Norrin, who's autistic, goes to a school north of the city in Westchester County. Since it takes so long to get there, one day she brought him to school and just waited all day.

QUINONES-FONTANEZ: I walked around, I walked down the road to the hospital and hung out in the lounge.



KHAN: She's taken four vacation days, so she could stay home with Norrin and brought him to work twice. Norrin's bus service resumed this week with replacement workers, but he had already missed seven days of school. The city still has legal obligations to get children like Norrin to school, but many say the city hasn't been doing enough.

MAGGIE MOROFF: The initial plans were pretty minimal.

KHAN: This is Maggie Moroff with the non-profit group Advocates for Children. At first, the city's plan involved giving out free subway and bus passes, and reimbursing parents for car service or for gas if they drove. Moroff says the MetroCards won't cover many students with mobility issues or families that have to travel far distances.

MOROFF: Even if the family finds a car service, and they take the car service, the child can't go in the car by themselves usually.

KHAN: The situation is evolving, and the city is now working to accommodate families on a case-by-case basis. But this small win comes after parents and advocates pressed the city for more options. Abey's mom, Michelle, says she is grateful her family has the wherewithal to figure it out. But it's still stressful.

MICHELLE: I think it's affected the way I interact with my family because I spend a lot of time working on getting a way to get him to school.

KHAN: For NPR news, I'm Yasmeen Khan in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yasmeen Khan