Buses, trains, cabs and cars, a 22-mile commute, and six hours in a school supply room. That was a recent Wednesday for Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, who has a 7-year-old with autism and a full-time job.
The current school bus strike, now in its third week, has left thousands of the city’s autistic children, like Quinones-Fontanez’s son, Norrin, without a ride to school. It’s disrupting their critical therapy, inconveniencing parents and interrupting their teachers’ schedules. But some parents believe the strike will protect senior staff jobs, leading to better quality of care for special needs children in the long run.
Only 2,860 bus routes were running on Thursday morning, out of 7,700 citywide, according to a Department of Education spokesperson. Just over 38 percent of special education routes, where buses typically pick up children at their homes, were in operation. These serve many of the city’s 7,000 autistic students, who are among 54,000 schoolchildren with special needs.
Quinones-Fontanez’ son, Norrin, attends a special needs school in Westchester, 22 miles from their Bronx home. When the bus strike began two weeks ago, his mother took vacation time off from her job as an administrative assistant. As his father couldn’t get off work for a school pick-up and she can’t drive, she spent the first three days at home with her son. But she quickly noticed that he missed his friends, the routine of catching the morning bus, and the school’s facilities, which include a sensory room.
“By Sunday night I could already see changes in him,” she said. “I could sense his anxiety. He was wondering why he wasn’t going to school.”
“I was just telling him that the bus drivers weren’t happy.”
After seven school days, two of which Quinones-Fontanez spent in the supply room at Norrin’s school waiting for him to finish, Norrin’s regular bus resumed service on Monday. Before then, her greatest concern was Norrin losing the progress he’s made in school, which he attends 12 months a year.
“Even after Christmas or spring break, his teachers have reported that when he returns there’s a clear difference,” she said. “He does fall off.”
The bus strike that could damage these children’s development is a response to the city soliciting bids for 1,100 school bus routes last month, which serve 22,500 special needs students aged between five and 18. Local Amalgamated Transit Union 1181 is protesting against the removal of Employment Protection Provisions from the contracts. These clauses guaranteed that if bus drivers were laid off because their companies lost city contracts, they could choose from openings at other companies, and the longest-serving ones had first pick. The new contracts don’t require firms to hire laid-off drivers. Calls to the union were not returned.
The city argues these provisions are illegal. Opening up contracts to new bids is Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s strategy to cut the $1.1 billion spent each year on school buses in New York City. That’s a cost of $6,900 per student, compared to $3,124 in Los Angeles.
But city-union strife means nothing to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, many of whom attend schools in Brooklyn. Children with the disorder often struggle with social interaction and communication, and display repetitive behavior. They require great attention and care to benefit from schooling.
More than half of the 36 children who attend The Yaldeinu School in Borough Park arrived late last week.
“Routine is so important to these children,” said Malka Wiener, a teacher at the school. “It affects their mood and regulation. They’re rushed and their busy and it affects how they start off the day.”
She added that some of the children remained worried throughout the day, and were confused when their parents didn’t pick them up. Time-constrained parents could also struggle to complete homework with their kids,
and children staying late meant teachers had less time to prepare for the next day.
Six out of 20 ASD students at Imagine Academy in Midwood, Brooklyn, have been stranded by the strike. Only two of the five school buses are working.
“I have parents who are driving, I have kids coming late to class, I have others arriving early,” said Elisa Chrem, the school’s principal. “It’s a tremendous burden for families that are already burdened.”
Imagine Academy provides physical, speech and visual cognitive therapy, academics, art and music classes and other services. Strike-affected students have arrived late and had to miss out, and often take longer to settle down.
She was also concerned about accidents during the mad rush.
“When you have kids and parents off-schedule, there are safety issues,” she said. “When you have to find parking and walk a few blocks, there’s a risk that something out of the ordinary can happen.”
As autistic children often attend specialized schools, they can face long commutes. Their parents rely on special needs buses, because public transport is a nightmare: the fluorescent lights, loud noises and physical contact common on the subway can be too much to handle.
“A lot of children with autism have sensory issues, especially in crowded places,” said Dr. Michael Siller, co-director at Hunter College Autism Center in Manhattan. “They get overloaded, become upset and irritated, have tantrums and get overwhelmed.”
When Quinones-Fontanez takes Norrin on public transport, he often pulls his hat over his eyes and covers his ears to block out the sensory barrage. He gets scared of the tracks below and flaps his hands nervously. She has to hold him with both hands to stop him from wriggling away.
Therapy interruption can cause autistic children to regress significantly, according to Siller’s research.
“Depending on how long the bus strike is, it could set kids back,” he said.
Autism advocacy groups agree with his findings.
“Many of these children thrive on routine, and they need that routine in order to be successful learners,” said Kim Mack Rosenberg, president of the New York Metro Chapter of the National Autism Association. She said that some parents were taking extra time off work to make trips to-and-from schools, and those with several children faced a serious challenge.
Her immediate solution was to redirect buses onto special needs routes.
Unions and some parent groups support the striking bus employees, arguing that the removal of protection clauses will let profit-hungry companies hire cheap, less-qualified staff. Drivers and attendants – who are trained to care for special needs students and may have decades of experience – could lose out.
“We want the goal of the strike to be achieved,” said Sara Catalinotto, 49, a co-founder of Parents to Improve School Transportation and mother of a 10-year-old autistic child. “The job seniority list ensures that the senior people are retained and the quality of transportation for children is maintained.”
The city’s interim staffing has also raised hackles: replacements attendants received only a couple of hours’ training before starting work on Monday.
“It’s like if I went to the dentist, and instead of a dental hygienist, the receptionist cleaned my teeth,” Catalinotto said.
The Department of Education stated that the new contracts include the same safety and competency requirements as before.
The city has taken steps to help parents affected by the strike. These include regular bus updates, free MetroCards at schools for parents and children, reimbursements for transport costs, and providing learning materials online.
But Catalinotto wasn’t satisfied with their efforts.
“It’s insulting,” she said. “MetroCards for 8-year-olds, telling people to get a cab who probably can’t lay out for one. Online teaching isn’t adequate for many children, especially those with learning disabilities.”
Her organization, PIST, has organized a car caravan to protest outside Mayor Bloomberg’s home on Saturday.