Pa. private, charter schools worry bus cuts will strand students

Some districts say they’ll continue to take these students to school, as usual, even though their own campuses are closed, while other districts plan to cancel bus service.

School buses

School buses sit idle on Monday, July 20, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Pennsylvania school districts that plan to start the year off virtually are facing a potentially thorny issue: What to do about bus transportation for students of private and charter schools offering face-to-face instruction.

Some districts say they’ll continue to take these students to school, as usual, even though their own campuses are closed. But other districts plan to cancel bus service until their own students return to brick-and-mortar classrooms, potentially stranding the private and charter students they are required by law to transport.

This week, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, pressed state education officials to clarify that school districts should maintain bus service for private and charter students whose schools are reopening for in-person instruction.

“Failure to transport children to school for in-person education is an unfair setback to students in an already challenging time,” Benninghoff wrote in a letter Thursday to Education Secretary Pedro Rivera.

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Education Department spokesperson Rick Levis said Friday that officials are reviewing the issue and will release guidance as soon as possible.

Among the member schools of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, transportation is “by far their biggest concern going into the new school year,” said Jessica Hickernell, the group’s director of public affairs and policy.

Many brick-and-mortar charter schools in cities and suburbs are planning to hold classes remotely, but those in counties where virus cases are low plan to reopen for classroom instruction, she said.

“Our schools are doing all they can to meet the needs of their students during this difficult time and, if the law is not enforced, they will be forced to make some tough decisions regarding transportation,” said Hickernell. “I know some schools are asking parents to help by transporting their students to and from school, but that is not always feasible.”

Catholic school officials in Pennsylvania said they’re also concerned. There are about 160 Catholic schools with 140,000 students statewide, and most of them plan to bring students back for face-to-face instruction.

“Some of our Catholic schools are opening for in-person instruction next week and they still haven’t been told if their students will be receiving transportation. There is a good chance districts will refuse to provide transportation to Catholic and nonpublic school students,” said Sean McAleer, director of education at the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

At issue is school districts’ differing legal interpretations of the Pennsylvania School Code. The law generally requires districts offering bus service to transport students of private schools within 10 miles of district boundaries. The Education Department has said that districts are on the hook to transport private-school students even when public schools are closed, unless it’s because of bad weather.

But when a school district holds classes virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic — and thus doesn’t bring its students to school — it could be argued that it doesn’t have to offer bus service to private-school students. That’s because the school code mandates “identical provision” of transportation to public and private schools, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials said in a legal analysis sent to school districts.

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The rules are different for public charter schools, the analysis noted, and districts opening remotely this fall will likely have to bus students who go to charters that are offering classroom instruction.

The Upper Dublin School District outside Philadelphia, which will be online only, plans to cut bus service to students attending private and parochial schools. Steven Yanni, the Upper Dublin superintendent, cast it as a safety issue, saying that proper physical distancing on buses and vans is difficult.

“Given that we are not transporting our students, we are also not transporting our non-publics,” he said.

The Pottsgrove School Board has likewise eliminated busing, furloughing 40 workers as a cost-savings measure, according to The Mercury newspaper.

The Philadelphia school district, the state’s largest school system, said it will continue to offer transportation to students at private and charter schools. District officials estimate about 180 such schools plan to offer in-person instruction.

“Our policy remains in place — if schools are open, we will provide service to them,” said spokesperson Monica Lewis.

Other school districts planning to open remotely said they haven’t decided whether to offer bus transportation to students who attend nonpublic schools.

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