Proviso Township High School District 209 said recently that it’s making progress on tackling school bus delays that led parents, students and teachers to show up at the Sep. 13 board meeting demanding answers.

During the nearly four-hour-long meeting, they complained about school buses either being late or not showing up at all, and the overcrowding on the buses that did show up. The district attributed this to staffing shortages that affected all bus companies. But board member Claudia Medina laid the blame at the feet of D209 Supt. Dr. James Henderson, arguing that he took too long to contract with the First Student school bus company, which didn’t leave enough time for planning and extra hiring. 

On Oct. 3, the district issued a statement saying that First Student hired six more drivers and that more hires were on the way. The statement indicated that the drivers would start driving the buses on Oct. 4. But Medina said that the statement was a “half-truth.” Although First Student did hire six drivers, it would be another month before the drivers are properly trained to actually do the job, she said. 

Attempts to reach out to First Student for comment last week were unsuccessful. In addition, Henderson and D209 board President Della Patterson did not respond to requests for comment.    

Bus driver shortages have been an issue state-wide even before the pandemic, but the schools going remote exacerbated the problem. Many school bus companies went out of business and those that ended up surviving reduced staff.

District 209 officials described First Student’s issues as part of industry-wide woes. But Medina, a long-time Henderson critic, said that the issues were due to the district reaching out to First Student close to the start of school year. 

During the Sept. 13 meeting, multiple parents, students and former and current teachers complained about how staffing shortages were affecting the schools, including busing.  Speaker after speaker talked about buses either arriving late or not arriving at all, students taking as much as an hour-and-a-half to get back home, and parents having to pay for ride-shares just to make it to class.

“I have to go to work every day, but I cannot go to work when I’m trying to get the children to school,” said Proviso West grandparent Yolanda Davis. “I’m paying for Uber every day.”

Proviso West science teacher Danielle English said she got “over 80 pages” of complaints from students about, among other things, not being able to get to school on time because of late buses and having to sit on the floor when the buses arrived. 

“In the past two weeks, I’ve seen the scenes that really hurt my soul,” she said. “It can only be summed up as educational malpractice.”

Medina said that the complaints have been bubbling up for a while. 

“[Buses were] leaving our students [waiting] for hours, and there were buses that had over 70 students in them,” Medina said. “They then had to send school district workers in buses. Needless to say, they were two hours late to class, three hours late. Some never arrived.”

The district has not discussed the potential role of Pace suburban bus service, which has several routes stopping near all three Proviso high schools. High school students are eligible of the reduced fares: $1.10 with cash, $1.00 with a Ventra card or $30 for a 30-day student pass. However, the routes are mostly limited to major corridors, which can be an issue for families that live further away.

Pace routes 303, 310 and 317 stop at Proviso East, serving the Madison Street corridor in Maywood before splitting off to serve parts of Bellwood, Hillside, Melrose Park and Westchester. Route 310 also directly serves Proviso West, while Route 301, which primarily serves the Roosevelt Road corridor in Proviso Township, serves both Proviso West and Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park. PMAS is also served by Route 308, which travels down Roosevelt Road to Hines. 

In a statement posted on its website on Oct. 3, the district acknowledged that “the beginning of the current school year has seen challenges in keeping up with the demand,” something that is being blamed on not having “enough bus drivers to manage the fleet.” But it assured families that the situation was improving.

In the statement, Henderson insisted that “making sure that our students have safe, reliable transportation to and from school is a top priority for us. We appreciate our families’ patience as we have worked through the challenges that we have encountered. We look forward to smoother operations from this point forward.”

The superintendent acknowledged in the statement that an extra six drivers are not enough and that First Student is still hiring more drivers. In the district’s Oct. 3 statement, Patterson described the hiring as a step forward.

“We are happy that the transportation situation is improving, and we are appreciative of those who have worked to make it so,” she stated. 

The district also encouraged parents to use FirstView, First Student’s school bus tracking app.

Medina disputed that characterization, saying that “everything that was told on the website is a half-truth.”

“First Student has hired people that they’re training, and it takes them a month to two-and-a half-months [to train them],” she said. “The bus company is training new drivers, and they still don’t have the capacity to do all the bus routes.”

First Student’s website indicated that the new hires don’t need to have school bus driver experience, and that they will get  “on-the-job training” to get the Commercial Drivers License (CDL) and the Charter Bus Endorsement, which all school bus drivers are required to have. Under state law, CDL training must provide at least 160 hours of instruction over the course of at least four weeks.