PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — On the first day of the bus driver strike in Providence, C.T. Young and her 12-year-old son Jeremy stayed home. The middle schooler has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair, and relies on a handicap-accessible school bus to get to Nathanael Greene Middle School.
“If I could, I’d drive him to school,” Young said. “But I don’t have a car, and I feel his education is being affected.”
Young said Jeremy gets services like physical therapy at school, and is missing out on socialization while at home. She decided not to try and bring Jeremy to school on a RIPTA bus, which she said would require making multiple transfers and walking from the bus stop to school.
The unionized bus drivers who work for First Student, a private company, walked off the job Thursday because of a dispute over their retirement benefits. The two sides did not appear close to a resolution Thursday evening.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said the city tried to find alternate transportation ahead of the strike but no bus fleet was large enough to handle the 9,000 students who ride the bus to school.
Thursday evening, a spokesperson for the school department said they were still looking for possible transportation for special needs students, but “no viable plan is in place to provide alternative transportation at this time.” The city has promised to reimburse parents with students who have special needs for the cost of transporting them to school.
“It’s in his IEP that Providence is legally required to get my kid to and from school,” Young said. “This isn’t fair.”
Meg Geoghegan, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Education, confirmed it is state law to provide transportation for students whose Individualized Education Program (IEP) requires it.
“However, despite the exhaustive efforts being made by both Providence and the state to find alternatives to First Student, the fact is there is not a transportation provider that can meet the needed capacity,” Geoghegan wrote in an email. “Reimbursement appears to be the only viable option at this time.”
“This is a unique situation,” Superintendent Chris Maher said Thursday morning. “It doesn’t come along very often and we’re all working together as a community to try and address it.”
If the city manages to find alternate transportation for students with disabilities, the union pledged not to picket the special needs routes.
As for 12-year-old Jeremy, he will be going back to school on Friday after Dee Dee Witman, an independent candidate for mayor, saw a story about him on Eyewitness News and managed to find a taxi company with a handicap-accessible van. The van will bring Jeremy to school on Friday morning and pick him up in the afternoon.
“This kid wants to go to school,” Young said. “He wants to see his friends and he wants to do his school work.”