NEW YORK CITY — After nearly 300 of its yellow school buses were damaged by Hurricane Sandy, leaving the city scrambling, the Department of Education has summoned reinforcement.
To help replace the buses and transport the 15,000 students whose schools remain shuttered, the governor signed an executive order waving school bus regulations, allowing the DOE to bring in a fleet of roughly 500 out-of-state and coach buses — and their drivers — to help with the load.
But many parents and advocates say that, while they’re grateful for the transportation, they're concerned about their children’s safety and the drivers now behind the wheel.
“This is horrible,” said dad James Harris, 48, who said he was on edge Wednesday afternoon as he waited outside the shuttered P.S. 183 in Arverne, for his kids, James Jr., 8, and Unique, 12, to be dropped off by a coach bus from their temporary new school in Ridgewood, Brooklyn.
Harris, who works for the city, said he spent more than two weeks without power, heat and hot water after flood waters from Hurricane Sandy ravaged his Beach 90th St. home. But he said the shuttle program put in place to take his kids back and forth between P.S. 183 and their new school was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“You don’t know who these people are, and then you have to worry about a different driver dropping them off than the guy who picked them up this morning. It’s just non-stop worry,” he said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Nov. 7 order waived all school buses requirements, so that any vehicle can be used to transport kids to and from their classrooms.
And those vehicles “may be operated by drivers who do not meet these school bus driver qualifications but are otherwise qualified to operate such motor vehicles,” the order states.
DOE spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said the city, which had been scrambling to replace the damaged buses as well as find new ones to shuttle students from shuttered schools, was able to secure about 500 replacement buses: 300 out-of-state school buses, which are being driven by the city's usual drivers, and about 200 shuttle buses, which are being driven by employees who work for the companies providing the service.
Feinberg noted that the shuttles are similar to the buses many schools use for out-of-city trips, and said that school staff have been assigned to ride along.
School bus drivers typically undergo detailed background checks and fingerprinting, and must take a 30-hour training course, as well as annual refresher classes, to be certified by the state, according to the DOE.
The courses include extensive training on how to operate a school bus, including procedures for working with children and special needs students, as well as basic First Aid training, employees at companies that run the programs said.
Sara Catalinotto, one of the co-founders of Parents to Improve School Transportation, which has been deeply critical of the city’s busing efforts, said that, while the group is glad that kids have a way to get to school, the city should have tried harder to bring in qualified drivers and traditional school buses.
“It really is unsafe,” she said. “There’s a reason that the buses have the markings that they do and have the stop arms and the flashing lights.”
When the shuttles began running, many parents waited hours for buses to arrive. By the middle of this week, the system seemed to be running more smoothly, though problems remained.
The large purple-and-white, intercity style buses carrying Harris’s kids arrived on time in the afternoon, but he said they’d been late picking up his kids from their damaged school in the mornings.
“They tell you, ‘Be here at 7 a.m.,’ and then the buses don’t come until 8,” said Harris. “So not only are you standing out here in the freezing cold, but your kids are late to school. Because why? They can’t figure out a closer school to take them to than Ridgewood?”
Eric Jimenez, 40, who has a pre-k student and first-grader at the school, said his main concern was making sure the kids were separated by age.
“The first day they were shoveling all the kids onto one bus,” said Jimenez, a longtime Arverne resident who just moved his family back home from Poughkeepsie, where they had been staying with relatives seeking refuge from the storm’s aftermath.
“You can’t have the 5-year-olds with the 14-year-olds and have the little guys getting picked on.”
The schools had separated students by age group Wednesday morning, Jimenez said, which he hoped was a sign that the program was becoming more organized .
Other parents were mostly content with the shuttle service.
“To me, it’s a good thing. It’s better than me having to drive back and forth to two different schools in the middle of Brooklyn,” said Emilia Famojuro, 49.
Famojuro lives in Bayswater but has to drive to Beach Channel High School near Beach 101st St. and Beach Channel Drive to pick up and drop off her third-grade son and high-school freshman daughter, who were students at P.S. 104 and Channelview High School before the storm.
Still, Famojuro said, she didn’t like the mandate that the city could use any vehicle of their choice to transport students.
“I’m going to have to keep my eye out,” said Famojuro, who works at a Catholic charity. “It does make me a little uneasy feeling like it could be just anybody taking my kids.”
More than 30 of the city's schools remain shuttered because of damage from Sandy.