Shortly before 9 a.m. Wednesday, Rebecca Shaw waited anxiously on the porch of her Deptford home, hoping the yellow school bus assigned to take her son to kindergarten would show up on time. It had been late every day so far this school year.
A bus did show up in her Blackwood Terrace neighborhood — about 10 minutes after its scheduled pickup time for Gavin, 5. He would be late to the nearby Central Early Childhood Center, where school begins at 9:15 a.m.
It was a slight improvement over other days, but it still meant that Shaw, an event planner at Temple University, would be late logging on for work. Her daughter, Myla, was also picked up late — by 23 minutes — she said.
“Only 10 minutes late to work today,” said Shaw. “That’s great.”
Like school districts around the country, Deptford has struggled to cope with a bus driver shortage that has left some kids missing school or stranded. Frustrated parents have called the police looking for their children. Shaw bought tracking devices to be carried by her children in order to locate them if their bus is late bringing them home.
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Last year, Deptford, along with the Camden and Glassboro school districts, staggered their bell schedules to give existing drivers enough time to finish and restart routes. This year, Camden said it has enough buses and drivers to help transport about 4,000 kids enrolled in its traditional district schools, as well as charter and Renaissance schools, a spokesperson said. The district leased a fleet of buses and hired local residents as drivers.
Deptford parents say the transportation crisis has been worse this year. Students have been waiting for hours for a bus to pick them up in the morning or bring them home in the afternoon. Some older students, tired of waiting at the end of the day, have been getting Lyft or Uber rides.
At a packed school board meeting attended by about 75 parents Tuesday, school board member Jim McDevitt acknowledged that the transportation woes were “the worst bus year ever.” He was surprised to see students in his neighborhood dropped off after school as late as 4:45 p.m.
Shaw and other parents peppered the board and Superintendent Arthur Dietz with questions for more than two hours. They also shared stories about missing work and waiting for students to get home.
Jacquelyn Gray said her frantic calls seeking the whereabouts of her 4-year-old went unanswered. He got home at 5:50 p.m. but should have been there by 3:45, she said. Next time, she plans to call the police.
“I’m still shaken,” Gray said.
Deptford, which enrolls about 4,000 students, has 34 drivers and hired 15 more from Holcomb Bus Service, officials say. The district reconfigured routes this week to try to fix the problem, but that has not worked, and Dietz said the routes will be changed.
“I deserve your anger,” Dietz told parents. “It’s not been good, transportation-wise. In fact, it’s been rather embarrassing. Now I have to go back and start over.”
Some parents said the bus drivers are unfamiliar with the routes and drop students off at the wrong location. Some students told parents that the drivers asked them for directions to their school. Adrienne Choma said her child arrived home at 4:40 p.m., about two hours after school discharged.
“They’re getting lost,” said Shaw. About 30 minutes after picking up her daughter Wednesday morning, the yellow school bus passed by her house. Myla texted: “The bus is taking forever.”
The shortage has put drivers in high demand. Some districts and bus contractors have offered lucrative bonuses and incentives to recruit new hires or lure retirees back to fill routes.
New Jersey districts are required to provide transportation for elementary and middle school students who live more than two miles from their school, and for high schoolers who live more than 2½ miles from school.
After picking up children in Blackwood Terrace, a bus was headed down a dead-end street Wednesday. Parents helped the driver figure out a printout of directions. The drivers are not equipped with GPS devices.
Raki Malley said his daughter Kyah, a sophomore honors student at the Gloucester County Institute of Technology where Deptford provides transportation, missed a quiz last week because her bus was late. She’s been late so often that she has make-up work, he said.
Malley said his younger daughter Kira, a middle schooler, was stranded at school when the bus left. He works at Fort Dix, about an hour away, and could not pick her up, so she got a ride home with an acquaintance, which made the family uneasy, he said.
“No one is happy that this is happening. It is not acceptable,” said board member Stacy Gray. “It needs to be fixed.”
Shaw said her daughter arrived home from school Wednesday about 20 minutes late. Her son was a half-hour late.
In a letter to parents Wednesday, Dietz said a transportation phone line has been set up where parents can call until every child has returned home. A spokesperson said Dietz will field those calls for now.
“This will help us provide you with peace of mind about the status of late buses until we solve the main issue,” he wrote.