Philly schools consider bringing in National Guard to help with bus driver shortage

School buses

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

Updated at 3:45 p.m.

The School District of Philadelphia is exploring ways to make up for a bus driver shortage that’s disrupted the first two weeks of classes. One potential remedy being considered is bringing in National Guard troops.

“We’re exploring all of the avenues within our span of control,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said at a press conference Wednesday.

Like districts across the nation, Philadelphia schools are facing intense bus driver shortages as the school year kicks off fully in person. Some students have been arriving late to class and getting home long after expected.

Hite said the district reached out to Gov. Tom Wolf’s office on Tuesday to explore the possibility of using National Guard troops to drive vans or provide other assistance.

While the talks are just starting, “they’re amenable to helping solve the problem,” Hite said. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker recently activated the National Guard to help with transportation issues in his state.

Hite said he is also reaching out to Amazon, which recently announced it will bring thousands of new jobs to Philadelphia, something that could make it more difficult for the district to recruit workers.

“My request to Amazon is what ways do they think they could be helpful to us either from a logistics perspective” or in some other form, he said.

For now, the district is doubling the amount it will pay eligible families who agree to transport their children to school, rather than relying on yellow bus service, from $150 per month to $300. Hite said the district is also in talks with SEPTA about providing fare cards to adults who can’t drive, so they can help bring their children to school.

The district has also expanded its transportation call center to eight employees, including one bilingual staffer, to help families navigate the system. The center is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Labor shortages are creating multiple problems across the district, timed to the first weeks in 18 months that all students are eligible for in-person classes.

As WHYY reported, many children showed up for the first days of class to find trash heaps and overflowing dumpsters in their schoolyards. While the district hired an emergency contractor to clean up the piles, some schoolyards and parking lots were still filled with trash early this week.

At the press conference, Hite said the district has contracted several additional vendors to collect overflow trash and added bulk dumpers throughout the city so waste can be picked up and transported more efficiently.

Hite also said he is considering potential consequences for J.P. Mascaro & Sons, the main garbage hauling vendor that works for the district, currently on a one-year contract worth $4 million.

“If you contracted with an organization to provide a service and the service is not performed, then there are stipulations in the contract that allow us to work with the contractor to recoup any of the payments that we have or in some cases if it’s too egregious to even cancel the contract,” Hite said.

He declined to share what specific actions the district may take, citing legal counsel.

Update on ‘equity coalition’

At Wednesday’s press conference, officials also provided an update on the district’s ‘equity coalition,’ formed last September in the wake of nationwide protests over racial injustice.

At the time, the coalition was tasked with conducting a districtwide equity audit and developing priorities for the future.

“We coined the 2020-2021 school year as a year of planning and exploration,” said Sabriya Jubilee, one of the initiative’s leaders.

In July, the district established an Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, with Jubilee at the helm. The office is supposed to advance the coalition’s work to create a more “equitable, anti-racist school district,” she said.

That includes engaging every stakeholder in the district in anti-racism training, and hiring “equity professional learning specialists” that can go into schools to provide additional support.

“What we are working to do is to ensure that we are putting in place conditions for everyone in our district, particularly people in our schools, to really think a little bit differently about our young people and what they are capable of and the communities they come from,” said Estelle Acquah, executive director of the new office.

Another goal is to shift toward a more culturally relevant, culturally inclusive lens in the classroom.

“That looks like when we are engaging in critical texts and reading, we have examples in our text of people that look like our students,” Acquah said. “That we are making sure that the language that we’re using as educators is affirming for all of our students. That we are making sure that we are celebrating the cultures of all of our students in a very systemic way.”

Officials stressed that it will take time to change the culture across the district.

“This is a long haul effort for us,” Acquah said.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

Get more Pennsylvania stories that matter

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal