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A Lafayette Parish school bus drops off a student Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Lafayette, La.

Youngsville resident Amber Idleman was two hours from Lafayette on an insurance sales call Monday when she received notice her 7-year-old son’s bus wouldn’t be bringing him home from Ernest Gallet Elementary, just an hour before the school day ended.

Idleman scrambled to find a co-worker to bring her son home, a stressful cycle she said she’s repeated each day this week as she waits to learn if a substitute driver will be available to staff her son’s route in the afternoon.

The single mother of two isn’t alone. Lafayette Parish School System parents around the district have complained of worse than normal transportation woes tied to the start of the school year, including unstaffed or understaffed routes, extensive car rider lines exacerbated by bus troubles and poor communication between the district and parents.

Idleman said she doesn’t have an extensive support system to lean on to fill the transportation gap; her children’s father died in 2019 and both her parents passed away in the past three years. Co-workers have stepped in so far, but doing so requires they step away from their duties and are inconvenienced. With extensive car rider lines, the co-worker who picked up her son on Wednesday was in line for an hour attempting to get to the school, she said.

The Youngsville mother said she’s scared about continued transportation struggles impacting her ability to work and put food on the table for her two sons, the eldest of whom is a sophomore at Southside High.

Idleman said when she tried to seek help via the district’s transportation hotline, 521-RIDE, she was first hung up on, then given an apology but no useful direction. It made her feel lost and defeated, she said.

“It’s very stressful. I have always known school to provide transportation for my child to and from school. ... That’s not there. It’s uncertain every day,” she said. “If that’s stressful for me, I know it’s stressful for him. He never knows who’s going to pick him up that day.”

Christine Short is in a similar position.

Her 9-year-old son attends Ernest Gallet and rides the same bus as Idleman’s son. Short, who runs a day care at her home from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., will see her transportation support system dry up when her husband leaves town Monday to travel for work. Then, picking up the slack from any bus mishaps will fall to her and, if lucky, a helpful neighbor, she said in text messages.

Short has received mixed messages about the absence policy tied to a lack of transportation; during a call with an employee on the district transportation hotline, she was told covering for the missing bus was her responsibility and her son would be marked as an unexcused absence if she didn’t or couldn’t bring him.

The mother of three said she doesn’t want her son to lose out on class time, but if the issue persists, she’ll be unable to pick up and drive him at the last minute while caring for five infants and toddlers in her day care.

“I feel like LPSS is making me choose between my child’s education and work. This isn’t fair, and no family should be forced to choose one over the other,” Short said.

Short and Idleman said their children have ridden district buses in years past and they understand hiccups are normal. They’re sympathetic that sometimes drivers are out, but route outages and other struggles related to the COVID-19 pandemic should have been predictable pitfalls the district built more of a cushion around.

“Yes, we are in a pandemic and I know everyone has to learn to adjust. But something should have been in place before the start of school. This is tough on parents and innocent children.” Short said.

“We’re not new to COVID. We’re not new to bus drivers being out, so just really have a plan so that we don’t have to go through this. In my opinion, this shouldn’t be an issue,” Idleman said.

The Acadiana Advocate contacted the Lafayette Parish School System regarding parents’ transportation complaints for this story but did not receive a response by press time.

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Other parents are gritting their teeth and sitting in extensive car rider lines at schools around the parish. Easing into the back-to-school routine takes time, but parents said they believe trouble with district-provided bus transportation is adding to the volume of car riders.

Aimee Juneau has had children at L. Leo Judice Elementary for the last nine years and said she can’t remember a time where the car rider line has ever been so congested. Since the return to school, Juneau said she’s left her home, barely 5 minutes from the school’s campus, at 7:15 a.m. every morning in the hopes of getting her three elementary-age children to school on time.

She stops at a friend’s home on the way, picks up her two children, and then sits in line from roughly 7:20 a.m. to 7:50 a.m. In years past, she estimated she could leave her home at 7:30 a.m. and have the children walk inside the school within 10 minutes of arriving in the car line.

Juneau said she and her friend decided to carpool to have one less car in line and hopefully ease stress for her friend’s 9-year-old daughter, who has anxiety and has struggled with fear around being late for school because of the car line.

The mother of four said she’s seen the elementary school’s principal trying to help direct traffic and knows they’re trying their best. Juneau said she believes parents’ issues with the LPSS bus system are exacerbating the problem.

“[I’ve been] stressed. I definitely don’t want to deal with this all year,” she said. “I know the first two weeks are the worst but I don’t see it getting any better.”

Rochelle Barras, whose three children attend Southside High, Youngsville Middle and Green T. Lindon Elementary, has been forced into the ranks of carline parents by her eldest son’s unreliable bus pickup schedule, she said.

Barras said at first her eldest son’s route wasn’t staffed, then when a substitute was assigned, it took a week of calls to the transportation department hotline to get the correct substitute’s contact information. Getting in touch didn’t matter in the end, she said, because the substitute has changed the pickup time each day or hasn’t come at the time given.

Thursday was the first day her son successfully caught the bus, and then only because they waited outside beginning at 5 a.m. Her son, who is autistic, was paranoid about missing the bus, she said. On the other days, Barras said she had to drive all three children to school because once she dropped her high schooler off, she couldn’t make it back home before her younger children’s buses passed.

“It puts a lot of rush on the kids. I’m having to wake them up very early and they need their sleep. It’s not only stressful on me but it’s a lot on them,” she said.

Barras, a para-educator for special education students, plans to return to the classroom at the beginning of September. She’s concerned that if bus reliability doesn’t improve she’ll be forced to continue driving each child to school, which will directly conflict with work.

Aside from reliability, Barras said she’s also concerned about crowding on buses and the ability to ensure children exposed to other students with COVID-19 are properly notified. Per the district’s reopening plan, students must wear masks on buses and sit according to a seating chart.

The Youngsville mother said her second grader reported she’s been crammed in three to a seat with other children and has sat in various spots throughout the bus this week, from right behind the driver to the middle of the bus, depending on where there were openings.

Her daughter was exposed to COVID-19 on the bus but not considered a close contact, per a district notification. Barras said she questions the accuracy of that assessment while lacking confidence the seating chart has been enforced.

“The School Board and the drivers dealt with this all year last year. This is not something new for them. I think they should have had better planning done for this year — maybe they should have had more meetings or something — but they should have had a better understanding with planning everything,” she said.


Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com