As New York City students prepare to return to their classrooms on Thursday, a major question remains unsettled for tens of thousands of families: Will their children have yellow bus service to and from school this fall?
Roughly half of the city’s school bus workers have warned that they will walk off the job if they do not soon reach an agreement with bus companies in their contract negotiations.
Union leaders pledged this week that bus service would not be interrupted for the first week of school. But they did not make additional assurances, raising the specter of a chaotic semester for a large group of students — more than 80,000 — who depend on the buses to get to school.
“Time is running out,” Carolyn Rinaldi, the chief of staff at the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, said.
Mayor Eric Adams and the schools chancellor, David C. Banks, have warned that a walkout would create significant challenges with “deep implications for some of our most vulnerable” students, including those with disabilities, homeless students and those who attend charter schools.
But officials have also aimed to reassure families that the city would be prepared. Schools would distribute free, emergency subway cards to affected families. Students with federal rights to transportation service — including those in temporary housing or foster care — would be eligible for a free ride-share service. And schools would excuse up to two hours of lateness for all students affected by a strike.
Still, the uncertainty has ignited a scramble among school officials and families in recent weeks reminiscent of turbulent pandemic reopenings. At a Tuesday rally outside the city Education Department building in Lower Manhattan, a small group ofparents and advocates called for a more robust plan.
“Honestly, I have no idea what I would do,” said Rima Izquierdo, a Bronx parent with three children who take the bus to school, including her 17-year-old son who has autism. “It’s going to result in a loss of instruction.”
The potential walkout threatens to upend school transportation at a time when busing in New York City is already facing problems. More than 14,400 bus delays were reported in October of last year, the highest monthly total since 2017. Students with disabilities — many of whom have a legal right to transportation service — faced longer waits. Sometimes buses did not show up at all.
A strike could turn a perennial headache into a nightmare. When city bus workers last walked off the job, for a month in 2013, school attendance plummeted for students with disabilities.
The city’s response faced scrutiny on Friday, when Mr. Adams seemed to suggest families were not entitled to transportation. “What many people don’t realize, busing is a service we provide. Not a mandate,” Mr. Adams said at a news conference. “We provide this because we believe it’s the right thing to do for our children.”
Amaris Cockfield, a mayoral spokeswoman, said later on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the mayor had specifically been referring to “the non-mandated population who are transported via school bus.”
Sara Catalinotto, a founder of the local group Parents to Improve School Transportation, said the city could ease problems for families by offering weekly MetroCards, instead of daily ones. She said that she worries about families who may face penalties at work if they are late because of transportation problems.
“A strike of any length will cause suffering,” Ms. Catalinotto said.
Elsewhere, cities from Newark, New Jersey to Los Angeles have faced growing transportation challenges as they grapple with a nationwide bus driver shortage. In Chicago, the country’s third largest system, the gaps recently left thousands of families without guaranteed service. In Louisville, Ky., busing issues were so widespread that schools shut down for more than a week last month.
In New York, workers at several bus companies including Consolidated, Logan and Pioneer voted overwhelmingly in favor of authorizing a strike as their contract expired in June. Officials at their union have pointed to economic issues as a sticking point in negotiations, but have not publicly detailed their proposals.
“Drivers, attendants and shop employees simply cannot make ends meet,” Tomas Fret, the president of the transit union, said in a statement last month.
Negotiations could still be resolved without a strike. The schools chancellor said at a recent news conference that he is hopeful. “We’re at the table,” Mr. Banks said. “We’re trying to be as helpful as we can possibly be.”
On Monday, Mr. Adams also announced a contract deal for Staten Island Ferry workers, after their union had gone more than 12 years without one.
The threat of disruption has brought back painful memories for families who recall the 2013 strike. “It was so stressful,” said Lori Podvesker, whose son, Jack, has developmental disabilities and who was 10 at the time.
This time, the city seems somewhat better prepared, said Ms. Podvesker, who is also the director of disability and education policy at INCLUDEnyc. But she worried that a strike could worsen inequities in the system.
“We would never tolerate this for students in gifted and talented programs,” Ms. Podvesker said. “It just feels that our kids are not as important as everybody else.”